A major national poll today from CBS and the New York Times finds that 65% of Americans still want a public insurance option as a voluntary alternative to private insurance. What’s surprising is that the number remains so high even though 26% still believe in death panels, and 30% believe illegal immigrants could (gasp) get health care. In the face of that desire for a public option, its opponents in Congress let the veil slip this week about about who they’re answering to.
The usual gritted-teeth courtesy between oppposing Senators slipped yesterday in the Senate Finance Committee’s health reform hearings (called "markups" because of the changes being offered). Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a staunch backer of the public insurance option, reacted to an insurance company giveaway proposed by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas:
"If there’s anything which is clear, it’s that the insurance industry is not running this markup, but is running certain people in this markup."
Huffington Post has video of the exchange, in which Cornyn pretends not to know what Rockefeller is talking about. Also this statement from another committee member, baldly admitting that he wants every amendment posted for 5 days before voting, so the lobbyists can get their fangs into it:
On Wednesday, committee member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) unintentionally made the same point about himself when he begged for "at least 72 hours for the people that the providers have hired [i.e. lobbyists] to keep up with all of the legislation that we pass around here, and the regulations that we pass around here, to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Have you considered this?’"
Yesterday, an amendment from Sen. Ben Nelson of Florida that would have made pharmaceutical companies chip some more dough into the reform pot was defeated in a 10-13 committee vote becuase three Democrats–chair Max Baucus of Montana, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Thomas Carper of Delaware voted no. Why? Because the drug makers are intent on stopping anything that might lead to Medicare negotiating on drug prices, and it cut a separate deal earlier with the committee leaders and the White House.
From CQ.com (subscription barrier):
Medicaid generally gets better prices for drugs than Medicare does [ed note: that’s because Medicare’s drug plans are run entirely by private insurers, and Medicare is not allowed to offer its own drug plan]; Democrats said Nelson’s amendment would save $86 billion over 10 years.
But his proposal would have gutted President Obama’s deal with Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s trade association. The agreement calls for the industry to contribute no more than $80 billion to the health care overhaul. As part of the deal, PhRMA members have agreed to provide 50 percent discounts to seniors who fall into the so-called "doughnut hole" gap in prescription drug coverage that forces many to pay out-of-pocket for their drugs for part of the year.
Nelson’s amendment proposed using part of the money to close the doughnut hole – a move that would cost about $56 billion over 10 years, he said, leaving $30 billion for other purposes.
Today, Sen. Rockefeller, who was going to start debate on his amendment to provide a public option, decided not to, clearly because the same thing would have happened. So the public option gets a 65% vote from Americans, but appears to have less than 50% support in a key Senate committee.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Rockefeller also hinted that Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, who might be the sole Republican vote for any kind of reform bill, is being pounded by her party:
Klein: What about Olympia Snowe?
Rockefeller: I think the world of Olympia Snowe. She’s got incredible courage, and the Republican leadership is brutal in the way they apply pressure. Much more so than the Democrats. …
They bring the hammer down on her, and I’m not going to say how. She’s very strong, and she represents a very rural state that has gone blue. So I don’t know what she’s going to do, and I’ll respect her whatever she does. But we need her vote, as Republicans filibuster every single amendment or item we bring out. We don’t have 60 members right now. This is where Olympia becomes very important.
So we can’t (so far) get a public option because the insurance industry can’t stomach the competition. We can’t get substantially cheaper drugs because the drug industry won’t allow it. And to at least Sen. Roberts of Kansas and his friends, Congress should never make a law without letting the industry’s lobbyists pick it apart for five days.
And frankly, Sen. Snowe looks like a frightened forest animal in the hearings, injecting reasonable questions but being drowned out by the pompous speechifying of Cornyn, Sen. Kyl of Arizona, Sen. Grassley of Iowa, Sen. Hatch of Utah and Sen. Ensign of Nevada (the scandalous adulterer who’s obviously trying to redeem himself with his base).
There will be a ferocious fight between the House and Senate over what gets into a final bill, and over whether the Senate minority will get to demand a 60-40 vote, instead of a simple majority. That’s where the new poll could attach some spine to the fence-sitters.