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Will Health Care Summit Jump-start Reform?

Bipartisan Meeting Puts Reform Proposals Back in the Spotlight

By

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

WebMD Health News

Feb. 24, 2010 -- Health care reform has delivered plenty of big moments. Heated town hall meetings. President Obama's September address to Congress. The House and Senate passing historic reform bills. And Republican Scott Brown's unexpected victory in Massachusetts.

This week should provide another memorable twist in this yearlong saga.

It began Monday with Obama unveiling his own proposal, a 10-year, $950 billion overhaul of the nation's health care system. His plan generally mirrors the Senate reform bill, with some key differences. The president clearly aims to reignite momentum for reform, which had dissipated after Brown's win deprived Democrats of their filibuster-proof Senate majority.

And Thursday's bipartisan summit on health care reform will underscore Obama's new hands-on, high-stakes involvement in the debate. Whether it will produce anything substantive, though, is at best uncertain. Lawmakers of both parties predict the meeting will be more theatrics than anything else.

Still, the unveiling of the White House plan ''is a good move by the president,'' says Julius Hobson, senior adviser on health care for Bryan Cave, a law firm. "He's taking ownership and leadership on the issue. It changes the tone.''

The proposal aims to extend coverage to 31 million more Americans, reform the insurance market, and take steps to curb the inexorable rise in health care costs. Obama would create a new federal insurance board that would review -- and perhaps stop -- excessive rate increases by health insurers. The idea follows widespread anger over premium increases of up to 39% planned by Anthem Blue Cross of California.

News of those hikes, and those by other insurers elsewhere, appeared to breathe some life into pro-reform efforts. "It was like throwing one right over the plate in batting practice,'' providing Democrats an easy target, says Donald Taylor, a Duke University health policy professor. The rate increases on individual policies show the instability of that market, he says.

Yet conservatives see the insurance board as another sign of what they call excessive government regulation.

"It's surprising because it takes away so much power from state insurance commissioners,'' says Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation. "It plays into the conservatives' argument that this bill will be a de facto government takeover of health care.''

Details of the President's Plan

Other provisions in the Obama plan include:

  • Stiffening the penalties for individuals who choose not to purchase health insurance, and for companies to cover costs if their workers get subsidized coverage.
  • Closing completely the infamous ''doughnut hole'' in Medicare's prescription drug coverage.
  • Eliminating the special deal to cover a Medicaid expansion in Nebraska, a widely derided feature of the Senate plan; instead, all states would get help in covering those costs.
  • Applying a new Medicare tax on unearned income for high-income households.
  • Delaying an excise tax on expensive, ''Cadillac'' health benefits plans until 2018, and raising the ceiling on the value of such plans that would trigger a tax.

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