Though a series of critical votes happened in the last month, not to mention the holidays, the issues that define negotiations between the House and Senate remain largely the same (check out our list if you need a refresher). Here’s an update on a few of those, and the process ahead.

The Overall Process Reports that the House and Senate will bypass a formal conference committee and informally negotiate a bill instead have been circulating for over a month but, in one of those mysteries of the news cycle, the plan has recently become a hot topic.

The other important process piece (though also not really news) is that the Senate bill is expected to be the starting point for negotiations, and the House will likely have to wage a limited number of battles to make changes.  Defining what that list will include is The Task for House Democratic leaders now as they seek to hold together their own fractious caucus.  One item almost certain to make the list is closing the Medicare Part D “doughnut hole.”  Indeed, Senate leaders have already stated publicly their intention to close the Part D coverage gap—though how to pay for it remains a matter of intense debate, with House members arguing that funding should come from the drug industry, and the Senate perhaps less keen to go that route (as the specter of its summer deal with PhRMA looms.)

Financing As we reported in December (and said many times before that), in the coverage debate, financing is the key.  Most observers believe that the excise tax on high-cost health benefits in the Senate bill will be further scaled back in negotiations with the House.  A critical and related issue—probably the most important one you never hear talked about–is one we flagged just before Christmas: How the price tag of reform gets calculated.

By our reckoning (see last week’s post), the Senate bill provides only a little over $600 billion in assistance to make coverage affordable for low- and moderate-income families, while the House comes in at around $900 billion.  Those extra $300 billion in assistance translate into a year’s worth of coverage (at the front) and more financial protection to low- and moderate-income uninsured people.

So the big financing questions left are: Will the House accounting prevail? And what, if anything, replaces the money lost from the excise tax? The answers to those questions determine whether there is any possibility of doing better than the Senate on critical affordability measures or by accelerating the implementation timetable.

Exchange Exchange It looks now like the House is going to make a major push to swap out the Senate proposal for state-based insurance Exchanges in favor of a national Exchange as in the House bill.   (States could still opt to run their own if they met federal standards.)  With that in mind, here’s a brief overview of the pros and cons of state and federal Exchanges.

A national Exchange benefits from uniformity and is likely to have lower administrative costs than 50 state Exchanges would. A national Exchange also reduces the problems that could stem from state governments being unable or unwilling to take on the new responsibilities envisioned in the Senate bill. It’s also possible that a national Exchange would have somewhat better negotiating leverage with national insurance plans, at least in small states.

But the price tag difference between a national Exchange and state Exchanges is likely less than many proponents of a national Exchange who tout a federal model’s savings believe.  The bulk of health care costs are determined by underlying local conditions, and a national Exchange will have little influence over those factors.  In addition, while it’s likely that states will vary in how well they rise to the new challenge, at least some are likely to do an excellent job.  If a future federal administration were to be hostile to health reform, the entire Exchange for the whole country could be undermined; recall that this was a problem for many executive agencies in the previous administration.

Finally, a national Exchange is no more a safeguard against the influence of the health care industry than are state Exchanges.  In fact, the geographic remoteness of Washington from most of the country poses no real obstacle to special interests seeking to influence decisions, but does limit the ability of consumers to engage directly in the decision-making process or hold decision-makers accountable.

In the end, state versus national Exchange is of less importance than are the rules under which any Exchanges must operate and the underlying structure of insurance regulation.  So for example, a bill should ensure that there is no conflict of interest in Exchange governance and that business is conducted subject to open meeting laws, as well as provide for consumer representation in Exchange governance.

It is also important not to carve insurance markets up into distinct pieces: for instance, not to split up non-group and small-group insurance, or allow separate risk pools to operate both within and outside the Exchange. The bill should also empower the Exchange to exclude insurers if it is determined that they do not meet standards for providing good value.

On many of these issues, the House does in fact do better than the Senate, as well as on matters  of insurance regulation such as limiting rate variation based on age and clearly eliminating annual and lifetime limits on coverage.

Bottom line? If the House wants to fight about Exchanges, they should focus on the issues that matter most.

Immigrant access Discrimination against immigrants remains a problematic aspect of reform, but the Senate seemed to make progress as reports indicate that leadership agreed to eliminate the ban on federal Medicaid matching funds for immigrants who have been in the country for less than five years.

We hope that, in negotiations,  the House will match the Senate’s willingness to remove the “5-year bar,” but won’t trade this progress for legal immigrants for its rightful opposition to the Senate proposal to bar undocumented immigrants from the Exchange, even when paying entirely with their own money—a provision supported by the Obama administration.

It’s also unclear just how many states would take advantage of the new matching funds option when, by doing nothing, they can leave the entire cost of covering low-income recent immigrants to the federal government.  The only fair alternative would be to give legal immigrants equal access to Medicaid, but state-based opposition to this fix has proved insurmountable thus far.

Next Dragon in the RoadDragon Though negotiations between the House and Senate are far from finalized, reform opponents are already gearing up for a multi-pronged attack on the legislation, including legal challenges, state constitutional amendments and ballot initiatives.

Those who argue that these challenges have little legal merit are missing a larger point.  This strategy is first a political one, and only secondarily aims to change the course of the short-run health care debate.

First, given the pace of implementation, the Presidential election of 2012 becomes pivotal.  A change of administration that year would likely cripple implementation, perhaps fatally.  Campaigns being developed now are largely geared toward building a base of activists for 2012.

Even if they are unable to unseat Obama, Republicans see health reform as a wedge issue they can use to regain control of Congress.  Failing that, by defeating some vulnerable and prominent supporters of reform, opponents hope to create a chilling effect that will dampen the willingness in Congress to pursue further reform.

What this means for reform supporters is that—far from final negotiations curtaining the show—a new act in the saga of U.S. health care reform  is about to begin.

–Michael Miller, director of strategic policy

photo courtesy  of austinevan at flickr creative commons