Booster Shots

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Could they be on some kind of medication?

May 5, 2008 |  3:50 pm

Healthcare reform is the kind of issue that manages to be both numbingly complicated and rabidly partisan at the same time.

But now a group of senators -- six Democrats, seven Republicans and one Independent -- have gotten behind a bill that would provide private coverage for all Americans, take employers out of the business of directly providing health insurance and generally nudge all participants in the healthcare marketplace to be more thrifty and quality conscious. Note: It would not change Medicare.

Although the sponsors of the Healthy Americans Act (S.334/H.R. 3163) have managed to bridge their partisan differences, the bill is still pretty much of a mind bender. Suffice it to say that it connects something like the financing idea that GOP presidential candidate John McCain espouses with something that resembles the kind of healthcare delivery system sought by Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

Indeed, Clinton on a campaign swing in Oregon told reporters she'd sign the legislation as president, if Congress put it on her desk.

But what might be even more amazing is that congressional budget estimators recently ruled that the bill would not break the bank. The bean counters agreed with sponsors Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah) that the nation can provide coverage for all at roughly the same cost of the current, much-maligned system.

In fact, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation projected the legislation would be roughly a break-even proposition for the government -- "budget neutral" -- a year after its hypothetical implementation and would help reduce the deficit in future years.

Wyden and Bennett were ecstatic. (How many times can the superlative "historic" be applied to a clunky worded budget estimate?)

"This is the first independent evidence that the healthcare system can be fixed without massive tax increases and boatloads of new federal spending," said Wyden.

"This is the basis for a bipartisan coalition to break the gridlock," said Bennett.

But outside a small circle of economists and healthcare wonks, the cost estimate generated hardly a ripple of interest.

Wyden, as indefatigable as pitchmen come, has set up a website -- careyoukeep.com -- complete with a nifty video (see above) to try to break through into the public consciousness with news about his bill.

The CBO's positive read on costs "is very substantial news for the presidential campaign. It ought to transform the discussion," said Wyden. "The conventional thinking doesn't make any sense any more."

In addition to Wyden and Bennett, the other unconventional thinkers sponsoring the bill are Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

-- Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

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