WASHINGTON – House Democrats are aiming to scale back the cost of their health care bill to well below President Barack Obama’s preferred price tag by giving the government a strong hand in selling insurance in competition with the private market.
Obama has sought to spend no more than $900 billion over a 10-year period. The initial cost of the House bill was more than $1 trillion. On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders received a new cost estimate of $871 billion from congressional budget umpires who measured a robust version of a so-called public option for health insurance, according to a Democratic aide.
The figures were preliminary because no final decision on the design of the public plan had been made, said the aide.
House Democrats worked on their legislation as senior Senate Democrats signaled they intend to try to strip the insurance industry of its exemption from antitrust laws as part of an upcoming debate over health care.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced plans to hold a news conference on the issue today along with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
If approved, the change would bring the insurance industry under stricter federal regulation.
The House bill with the strong public plan would extend coverage to 96 percent of uninsured Americans and significantly reduce budget deficits.
An $871 billion bill in the House would be in line with the leading Senate bill, the $829 billion measure approved last week by the Senate Finance Committee.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other liberal lawmakers have joined Obama in calling for a public insurance program as a way to drive down the costs of insurance. Republicans have opposed government-run insurance and vowed to vote against a bill establishing a public option.
Pelosi assembled Democratic lawmakers Tuesday night to try to sell them on her preferred version of the public plan, which would link payment rates to providers to Medicare rates, plus an additional 5 percent for doctors. Moderates have been concerned that those rates are too low and would hurt hospitals and other providers particularly in rural areas.
Several lawmakers said they were getting close to the 218-vote majority needed for the stronger version.
Leaders in both the House and the Senate were trying to finalize bills in time to begin floor debate in the next several weeks. Whether Reid would include a public insurance plan in the Senate version was not clear.