My ABC colleague Z. Byron Wolf reports:
Tempers flared this morning as the Senate Finance Committee continues to slog through its mark up of a sweeping health care reform bill.
Sen. Max Baucus, who chairs the Finance Committee, and is anxious to pass a bill on to the Senate floor as soon as possible so that Democrats can enact health reform this year, cut off Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz, the number two Republican in the Senate, accusing him of delaying and called for a vote on an amendment – one of more than 500 that have been offered to the bill – after 45 minutes of debate.
"I am not delaying. I am making an extremely important point," Kyl shot back.
"I don’t dispute that it is a good point, but it’s also delaying," said Baucus.
This went on for another fifteen minutes until the amendment was defeated on a party line vote.
The amendment in question would have barred full implementation of the health care reform bill if it were apparent that up to a million seniors enrolled in private Medicare Advantage insurance programs could be shown to lose some of their benefits under the legislation.
Democrats and President Obama have made a cornerstone of their health reform pitch that if a person likes their current health coverage, under the new system they could keep it. But they finance the bill in part with assumed future cost savings in Medicare and Medicare Advantage. Republicans say these cost savings will lead to cuts in benefits.
"Millions will lose coverage because of this bill," said Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Baucus, countered Hatch that seniors will lose more benefits without reform. The current system, he said is unsustainable, and opposing his bill is the same as a vote for "the status quo." He complained that Republicans do not have a serious, comprehensive alternative.
"Its correct, you won't see a Comprehensive GOP bill and there’s a good reason for that," said Sen. John Kyl, a while later in the midst of a lengthy speech. "We don't believe in a massive government takeover!" he said, raising his voice.
At issue are the two main Republican gripes with the bill – First, that it cut costs in Medicare by scaling back payments to a program utilized by 10 million seniors – Medicare Advantage, which distributes public Medicare benefits through private companies. And second, that even the more moderate health reform bill envisioned by Democrats on the Finance Committee, would represent a massive government takeover of the health care industry.
Democrats have complained that the Medicare Advantage program, which was originally envisioned as a way to save the government money, but was tweaked in 2003 to expand coverage for people in rural areas, is a bad deal for Uncle Sam and tax payers.
The government pays 14 percent tax dollars more per person for these private programs, leading critics to say that traditional Medicare enrollees are subsidizing the higher benefit levels of the Medicare Advantage enrollees. But the Medicare Advantage programs are popular with many seniors because they simplify care and often wrap in extra benefits, ranging from dental and vision coverage to eyeglasses and gym club memberships.