House progressives holding together

The chairman of a liberal caucus says he hopes to keep a strong public option in the House healthcare bill

Published September 25, 2009 4:31PM (EDT)

House liberals are starting to feel more confident they can push Democratic leaders to pass a healthcare reform bill with a robust public insurance option, which could help protect the plan during negotiations with the Senate.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and the c0-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, told Salon Friday that the caucus has been circling back to members and non-members who support a public option, trying to make sure they still have the votes they need. The caucus wants the reform legislation to include a public option as part of a proposed insurance exchange system, which would pay doctors, hospitals and other providers at Medicare rates, plus 5 percent, the formula in the version of the reform bill that passed the House Education and Labor Committee. (Another version, which the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote, would order the public plan to negotiate new rates with providers.)

As part of the progressives' whip count, Grijalva says he called 25 Democratic lawmakers Thursday and Friday. He couldn't reach two of them, one preferred the negotiated rates, one wanted more information -- and the other 21 were all still on board with the more liberal plan.

Helping the cause, the Congressional Budget Office told House Democrats Thursday that the Medicare plus 5 plan would cost significantly less than a plan that negotiated rates. Over the next 10 years, the Medicare version of a public option would save the government -- and taxpayers -- $110 billion; the negotiated version would save only $25 billion. Lawmakers are looking for as much savings as they can find to keep the overall cost of the bill down; if a more robust public option would help do that, expect progressives to point it out. (Insurance companies hate the idea of a public option that pays at Medicare plus 5 percent, because they expect providers to raise the rates they charge private insurers to make up for any lost income.) 

The more conservative House Blue Dog Caucus, meanwhile, may not be as firmly opposed to a public option as its members once were. Grijalva couldn't resist gloating a bit: "I don't know how much wind they had in their sales, but [the CBO report] certainly took it out."

Progressives are pushing House leaders to schedule votes on healthcare reform soon, without waiting for the Senate. "The sooner the better," Grijalva said.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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