House prepares to bring a strong reform package to the floor On Thursday, House leadership unveiled a strong health reform package and plans to begin debate on it late this week.  The House bill gelled in the middle of last week when leaders judged that a final push to get 218 votes for a bill that included the “robust public option”—a public insurer that would pay rates based on what Medicare pays—was going to fall short.

Instead, they put out a bill that includes a public insurance plan that would negotiate rates with providers.  The CBO projects this version would save less money, so Leadership made up for the lost savings by proposing a further expansion of Medicaid to 150 percent FPL instead of the 133 percent that cleared committee in the original bills.

Community Catalyst is strongly supportive of the House bill, which goes beyond earlier drafts in a number of respects. It includes a national insurance Exchange that also gives states the option of creating their own Exchanges, new rules that prevent insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions or charging people more because they are sick, expands Medicaid, adds a long-term care insurance program for disabled adults, requires health plans to allow young people through age 26 to remain on their parents’ policy, and eliminates the Medicare doughnut hole by 2019, rather than 2024.

Compared to the bill taking shape in the Senate, the House bill is likely to provide better benefits, better subsidies and more progressive financing while reducing the federal deficit and still costing less than the $900 billion ceiling set by President Obama.  Compared to the Senate, the House leadership appears more willing to take on segments of the health care industry and also includes a more significant employer responsibility provision.  (As a result, it faces stiffer opposition from these interest groups, though insurers are opposing the Senate bill as well).  However, according to some analysts, the House legislation does less to reduce spending over the long run than the proposal that passed the Senate Finance Committee.

While the House bill represents a huge step toward quality affordable health care for all, it includes a couple of notable weaknesses. The bill bars most workers who have employer-sponsored insurance from receiving subsidies in the health insurance Exchange.  Instead, workers would be required to take up their employer offer of coverage unless its cost exceeds 12 percent of their income, a requirement that would be too burdensome for low-wage workers.  A better approach would be to exempt workers from the mandate requirement on a sliding scale, as Massachusetts does.

A second problem is that the House legislation assumes that coverage is “always affordable” for people whose income exceeds 400 percent of the federal poverty line.  This provision would be burdensome, especially for older adults with income just above the cut-off point for subsidies.  Although the bill limits premium variation based on age, an older person could still pay twice as much as young adult, leaving them with a very substantial premium liability. Establishing a ceiling on how much people could be required to pay for coverage, regardless of income, would remedy this problem.

The House bill also eliminates the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, and assumes that children who are not Medicaid eligible will get their coverage through employer plans or through the Exchange.

There a number of potential benefits to moving children off of CHIP, not least of which is moving away from a block grant program that gives states the ability to offer relatively limited coverage (flexibility that states have not generally utilized to date) and instead give children a federal guarantee of coverage.

But while under law, CHIP plans may be limited, in practice most states have provided kids with comprehensive coverage.  As a result, children transferring from CHIP to Exchange coverage could see their benefits reduced and their costs increase.   Preserving CHIIP as a program that provided additional benefits and cost-sharing protections for children in families above the income eligibility threshold for Medicaid could help ensure that children get the health care they need.

For more details on the House bill see this updated Community Catalyst summary and discussion. 218, that elusive magic number As the House prepares for floor action as soon as this week, several hurdles to passage still stand.  Here are the three main sticking points:.

•    Abortion A number of House Democrats, led by Michigan Representative Bart Stupak, want to have a vote on language that would preclude plans that receive federal subsidies from including abortion coverage.  The current language in the House bill separates out the cost of abortion coverage from a benefits package, and requires the value of subsidies to be calculated without it. But Stupak wants a stricter prohibition on abortion coverage and claims to have the support of 40 House Democrats, which could be enough to block reform if they do not get their requested vote.

•    Immigrant Coverage A debate is simmering within the House about whether to adopt a provision, favored by President Obama, that would prohibit undocumented immigrants from buying insurance coverage through the Exchange, even with their own money.  Many progressives, especially members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are concerned about the lack of equal treatment for legal immigrants.  Advocates and lawmakers are now contemplating whether to push for an amendment that would give states the option to receive federal matching funds to cover certain legal immigrants through Medicaid.

•    Public Option While the House leadership believes they lack the votes for a public option tied to Medicare rates, some progressives still want a chance to vote on that amendment and may block action if they don’t get it.

All of these issues could be addressed in a “manager’s amendment” or in the rule that will govern debate in the House later this week.

Affordability woes in the Senate In case you missed it in our Friday blog post, the Senate is still struggling with the affordability issue.

While sources on the Hill confirm that the Senate is trying to make badly-needed affordability improvements for moderate-income households, they are trying to do it while still reducing fees paid by medical device manufacturers and an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans.  As a result, the best idea the Senate appears able to come up with at this point is to reduce premiums for moderate-income households by raising them for those at the bottom (We compared this proposal with the SFC bill and House leadership plan here.)

Timetable Update House: The House plans to start floor debate late this week and to finish no later than Thanksgiving.

Senate: A backlog of work at CBO has slowed progress on the Senate side.  Given the slower pace of debate in the Senate, and with Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving on the holiday horizon, the Senate is unlikely finish debate this month, though there is still a good chance they will finish before Christmas.  That means though, that resolving the differences between the House and the Senate will likely extend into next year.

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–Michael Miller, Director of Strategic Policy