RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON
Liberals are taking aim at Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus as his committee prepares to vote today on whether the government should create its own health plan to compete with private insurers. Offering the middle class the option of a plan like Medicare is a top goal for liberals. But no Republican lawmakers support it, and moderate Democrats say the Senate would never go along. Baucus, D-Mont., says his own plan will achieve the goals liberals are seeking by other, more politically feasible, means. The Finance showdown is expected to pit Democrat against Democrat. Although the public plan isn't expected to get a majority of the panel, supporters say at least they'll know where everybody stands. Baucus is in the hot seat accused by liberals of being lukewarm, if not downright hostile, to the government option. Two liberal groups are launching a hard-hitting television and Internet ad featuring a young father from Montana. Bing Perrine, 26, in need of a heart operation, uninsured and deeply in debt, looks straight into the camera and asks Baucus, "Whose side are you on?" The ad is sponsored by Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who say Baucus is too cozy with insurance and health care interests that have contributed to his campaigns and oppose the public option. "The public option is the only true way we can keep it Fair," Perrine said in an interview. The insurance industry says it couldn't compete with the price-setting power of government. Baucus aide Tyler Matsdorf said the ad falsely implies that Baucus doesn't care about the plight of people with pre-existing health problems. It's just that Baucus would address such problems in a different way from what the liberals want, Matsdorf said. For example, the Baucus plan would bar private insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing health problems and create nonprofit co-ops to compete with the industry. Matsdorf said that would achieve the same result public plan supporters are seeking and "prevent (Perrine's) situation from ever happening again." Such arguments don't seem to be convincing liberals. Another group, Health Care for America Now, is circulating a Sept. 23 letter to Baucus from local Democratic Party leaders in Montana, which is raising more questions from the left about the senator's position on the public plan. The letter summarizes an August telephone call between Baucus and the Democratic leaders and quotes the senator as saying, "I want a public option, too." "We need you to say the same thing in Washington," the local Democrats wrote. Baucus spokesman Matsdorf responded that the senator included a government option in his original health case blueprint issued last November. Since then, Baucus has realized that a public plan doesn't have enough support to clear the Senate. "Health care reform isn't just about what Sen. Baucus wants," said Matsdorf. "It is about crafting a bill that can get 60 votes in the Senate." Senators will have at least two Democratic alternatives to choose from and maybe a compromise from a moderate Republican who is keeping all her options open. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is proposing a public plan modeled on Medicare, in which the government would set what it pays doctors, hospitals and other medical providers. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is proposing a government plan that looks more like a private insurance company and negotiates payment rates with providers. "Win or lose, it's clear that the strong public interest and support for a public option will be well represented by the supportive senators," said Gerald Shea, a top health care policy expert for the AFL-CIO. "My sense is that our message about how vital the public plan is to the critically important issue of cost control is beginning to break through the bubble that has surrounded Finance for months." The wild card in the debate is Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Aides say she's considering offering a compromise that would use the public option as a threat, to be deployed only if private insurers fail to keep premiums in check after a reasonable period of time. If there's a final bill this year, it's possible that Snowe's idea will be the one to carry the day.