Health care drive in high gear

Major hospital associations, pledging to save more than $150 billion over 10 years, were the latest big industry group to jump aboard what has become the Health Care Express. Meeting with Vice President Biden today, they said the savings can help pay for health care to those without insurance.

They join a variety of industry groups – including insurance companies and drug makers who now promise to decrease what they charge for their products and services. Sources in Washington indicate that doctors will be the next to jump on board.

Almost no-one denies that the mass movement for universal health care has been a decisive factor in these developments and most credit the Obama administration for also playing a major role.

Critics have questioned all of the health care industry promises, saying not enough is known about what, if anything, the administration has promised them in return and that, in any case, there is no guarantee that the savings will materialize.

As far as the hospitals are concerned, there are reports that what they are getting in return is an agreement that any new public health insurance plan would reimburse them at levels above the current federal insurance programs.

While some involved in the struggle for health care overhaul find dealing with any part of the health care industry distasteful, at best, others see it as necessary.

They note that the approach of the Obama administration in this battle has been to push for the development of a grass roots movement on the one hand while it draws all interested parties out of the woodwork, getting everyone to at least declare that the system needs changing and to put what they have to offer on the table. On the legislative level, they note, the administration takes the approach of cutting Congress a lot of slack and entering the process, as necessary, with positive reinforcement. The approach, they say, led to successes with legislation earlier this year.

“I believe the approach the White House has used so far has actually been smart and tough minded, not simply expedient and weak,” wrote Congressional expert Norm Ornstein recently. “A successful president looks at the endgame, sees what is possible and maneuvers in the best way to get to that endgame. If you can’t get bills through committee, or you can’t find a majority on the floor of either chamber, you get nowhere.”

The combination of a vigorous mass movement on the one hand and a tough-minded political and legislative strategy on the other seems to be yielding results as the administration and Congress rush to complete a plan.

Early in the fight many in Congress had reservations about a strong public option.

In the past few weeks, three successive national polls have shown that roughly 70 percent of respondents favor a Medicare-style public plan as part of healthcare reform.

Almost every Democrat in the House and Senate, citing those polls, is now on board on this issue. Republicans, of course, remain solidly opposed.

Obama used his “bully pulpit” to push for the public option at a recent White House midday press conference: “If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality healthcare, if they tell us that they’re offering a good deal, then why is it that the government – which they say can’t run anything – suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That’s not logical.”

Support for the public option is so strong that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel had to meet with House Democrats last night to reassure them that the president strongly backs a government-run health insurance plan. A firestorm of protest by Congressional liberals had erupted as lawmakers returning from the holiday recess read e-mails from voters mobilized by MoveOn. They were objecting to Emanuel’s comments in the Wall Street Journal that suggested a public option component of the health plan could be delayed.

Move On rushed out releases yesterday criticizing what it called Emanuel’s trial balloon of a “trigger” for a government run public option. The release read: “Call the White House switchboard and tell them you’re disappointed in Chief of Staff Emanuel’s comments supporting the ‘trigger.’ Tell them voters want a strong public health option – not half measures like the ‘trigger.’”

It was just one example of the interaction between the broad movement for health care reform and progressives in Congress.

The labor movement, for example, has been firmly opposing any plan that would tax the healthcare benefits workers receive from their employers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday made it clear to Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that he should drop a proposal to tax those benefits and that he should, essentially, stop chasing after Republican votes for the massive health care reform bill that will emerge from the Senate. Baucus has spent countless hours seeking a compromise with Republicans.

Senators on the Baucus committee are saying that any tax on employer-paid insurance benefits is quickly losing favor with Democrats.

“It’s clearly a very difficult issue,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, citing recent polls. “You go to the public to ask them what they think and they don’t like it.”

Republicans favor the tax on employer-paid benefits that workers receive.