Anchorage Daily News: Alaska senators don't see health bill passing as it stands now

A day after Alaska's senators voted against each other on health care reform, both said that plans to offer people the option to buy government-run health insurance won't survive the upcoming Senate fight as written.

As the Senate prepares for combat over overhauling national health care, this so-called "public option" is a key battleground.

Unlike a handful of centrist senators who have indicated they won't support health care reform that includes a public option, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said it's not a deal-breaker.

"I'm not going to let the bill live or die on that single item," he said.

Democrats need every vote in hopes of passing a sweeping health care package. Over the weekend the Senate voted along party lines to proceed with debate on the bill.

Begich voted yes. Murkowski said no.

"If I thought that the base bill was worth progressing. I'd say, 'Yeah, lets move it. Lets start debating,'" Murkowski said.

"It's really tough to try and fix something when the base of it is just so wrong," she said.

Murkowski argues the health care bill would raise taxes, hurt small businesses and fail to lower insurance costs.

Begich said the proposal needs to be tweaked through an amendment process that should begin when senators return from their Thanksgiving recess, but the reforms will shield small business owners from crippling health care costs and ultimately lower the national deficit.

"It's in our best interest to deal with this problem now," he said.

The bill would cost about $979 billion over the first 10 years while reducing deficits, Congressional budget analysts predict, extending health insurance coverage to about 31 million Americans and preventing insurance companies from denying people coverage because they're already sick. Most Americans would be required to carry insurance. Those who can't afford it could get subsidies.

The health care debate hit Alaska this summer and fall during a series of town hall meetings. People alternately told the senators that the proposals would grow taxes and bloat government spending, or that blanket changes are needed to heal a broken health care system.

Murkowski said she plans to propose a plan that would allow fishermen across the country to pool together and negotiate better insurance coverage. She supports banning insurance companies from placing lifetime caps on coverage and allowing insurers to sell across state lines.

Begich said he also wants more competition among insurance companies, especially in Alaska where two providers account for nearly the entire market. He plans to propose or support consumer-protection plans along with proposals that would allow people to buy their prescription drugs from other countries, such as Canada, and allowing Medicare to haggle for lower drug prices.

For now, much of the focus centers on the public option, which would allow people to buy their insurance from a government-run program rather than private companies. States could opt out of the program under the bill produced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Three Democrats, plus independent Joe Lieberman, have signaled they might not support the final bill.

Begich isn't in that camp, saying the bill is about more than the public option debate.

"But I will say that if it has a negative impact and cost and the government is at risk -- meaning the taxpayers -- then I'm going to question that part of the legislation," he said.

Murkowski opposes the public option saying it wouldn't offer people lower premiums than private insurers. She predicts it won't survive the coming Senate debate.

"I think (Reid) loses more votes with a public option than he can afford," Murkowski said.

Begich also expects at least some changes. "The way Reid has his laid out is not the way it's going to be the way it ends up," he said.

If any kind of public option passes the Senate, Murkowski said, it's more likely to be something along the lines of a proposal from Sen. Olympia Snow, R-Maine. Her idea is to launch a government health plan option only as a safety net -- available in states where insurance companies fail to offer affordable rates.

Begich said he's anxious to see the details of Snowe's proposal.

"I'll take a serious look at what she has to offer," he said.

# # #

Source: By Kyle Hopkins. Originally published by the Anchorage Daily News on November 22, 2009