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Senate takes aim at insurance executive pay

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ERICA WERNE
December 5, 2009
— Democratic senators are taking aim at insurance industry executive pay as they jockey for advantage in a rare weekend session to debate President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

Republicans are showcasing the bill's cuts to Medicare, seeking to undermine support for the legislation among seniors and others as partisan debate rages over the sweeping remake of one-sixth of the nation's economy.


Both sides were bracing for more grueling and unpredictable debates and negotiations Saturday, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., racing the clock to complete action on the 2,000-plus page bill by Christmas.


The nearly $1 trillion legislation would provide insurance coverage to more than 30 million more people over the next decade with a new requirement for nearly everyone to purchase insurance. New insurance purchasing marketplaces would be set up, lower-income people would get subsidies, the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor would be expanded and unpopular insurance company practices such as yanking coverage when someone gets sick would be banned.


The biggest problem for Reid: getting agreement among his own Democrats on the divisive issues of abortion and a government insurance plan to compete against the private market.


He needs all 60 members of his caucus to agree, but several moderates are balking.


"Abortion and public option are really the major obstacles at this point," said the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois.


Talks to find common ground on those issues are happening behind the scenes, but coloring the public action. Democratic leaders were giving the spotlight Saturday to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. a key moderate with a difficult re-election next year to propose an amendment that would limit insurance executives' tax deductible salaries to the same amount the U.S. president makes currently $400,000.


The bill already includes a limit of $500,000 added by Lincoln earlier, so the new amendment doesn't represent a major change, though it does add a provision directing the expected $650 million in revenue to the Medicare trust fund.


It also gives Lincoln something to brag about as her poll numbers sag back home.


"Without this change every Arkansas taxpayer and every U.S. taxpayer subsidizes these big insurance executives' unlimited salaries and compensation packages at the same time the companies are denying coverage to hardworking Americans," Lincoln said.


Lincoln is among a few senators whose votes are uncertain but necessary for Reid. She reiterated her opposition Thursday to the government-run insurance plan in the bill, and despite numerous talks among liberals and moderates to find a compromise, Lincoln said she hadn't seen anything she could support yet.


Republicans again devoted their Saturday radio address to criticizing the legislation, this week over a topic debated earlier preventive care for women. That became an issue after a government advisory panel recommended against regular mammograms for women in their 40s. One of the votes the Senate cast this week was to safeguard coverage of mammograms.


Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive, breast cancer survivor and a Republican candidate for governor in California, delivered the address. She said that the recommendation on mammograms was an early taste of what could happen under the Democrats' plan.


"We wonder if we are heading down a path where the federal government will at first suggest and then mandate new standards for prevention and treatment," Fiorina said. "Do we really want government bureaucrats rather than doctors dictating how we prevent and treat something like breast cancer?"


Many Americans, however, complain that important health care decisions are now made by insurance company bean-counters.


Republicans planned to use the sixth day of debate on the bill to offer the third in a series of amendments highlighting the legislation's more than $400 billion in cuts in projected Medicare spending to private insurance companies, hospitals and other providers.


This time Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., will try to eliminate $42 billion in cuts in Medicare payments to home health agencies. The retirees group AARP supports the overall Medicare cuts as getting at inefficiencies and overpayments in the program, so Democrats have political cover to keep them in the bill.


Nonetheless, Republicans are doing all they can to force Democrats to cast politically risky votes.


On Friday, Republicans tried to restore $120 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage, the private insurance plan that provides seniors with better benefits than the traditional program. Democrats say the government is wasting money overpaying the plans, and the effort failed 57-41.


Separately, the Senate turned back a Republican effort to eliminate a long-term care insurance program to help seniors and the disabled, but the vote exposed the difficulties Democratic leaders face in persuading their own moderates to remain united. Eleven Democrats voted with Republicans, who warned that the new program would turn into a drain on the federal budget.


Republicans fell short on a 51-47 vote. They needed 60 votes to prevail.


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Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and David Espo contributed to this report.



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