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Democrats Rake Anthem Rate Hike, Hint a Health Care Deal Is Close

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

Feb. 17, 2010 - Four House Democrats in a call with reporters used a proposed Anthem Blue Cross insurance hike in California as an example of the kind of development they hope will stoke public rage over health care costs and breathe life back into the overhaul in advance of a Feb. 25 health care summit called by the president at the White House.

What precisely Democrats will be uniting behind remains unclear, though lawmakers on the call repeatedly said 90 percent of the House and Senate bills are similar and show how to move ahead on the health care overhaul. Democratic lawmakers in the two chambers continue talking and are not far from an agreement on a united approach, they said. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said that "as you know, the House and Senate have come very close to reaching a final agreement in coordination with the White House."

Van Hollen, an assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that the president "clearly has an idea about what legislation will be required in order for us to move forward" but wants to use the summit to get a sense of what Republicans' objectives are, and work to try to include those ideas in health care legislation.

"We are very close to ironing out the differences but the president wanted to take a moment to revisit these issues with our Republican colleagues," he said.

Van Hollen warned that the Anthem Blue Cross rate hike is "exhibit A" of what will happen if nothing is accomplished on health care. Anthem Blue Cross of California, a unit of the giant insurer WellPoint Inc., has proposed a rate hike of up to 39 percent for policies held by Californians in the individual market, prompting sharp criticism from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "Clearly, the status quo is not working," said Van Hollen.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said House and Senate Democrats have had ongoing conversations for "a very long time" about how to proceed on the two measures. "The meeting continued, there was a working out of the areas that were different, if you will, and coming to a conclusion about it," she said. That was halted by the Jan. 19 special election in Massachusetts in which Sen. Scott P. Brown was elected and provided Senate Republicans with enough votes to mount a filibuster.

Now, President Obama has said that a Democratic draft will be laid out prior to the beginning of the bipartisan summit, using the House bill (HR 3962) and the Senate bill (HR 3590) to launch the debate.

"Since this meeting will be most productive if information is widely available before the meeting, we will post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package," Sebelius and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel wrote congressional leaders last week. "This legislation would put a stop to insurance company abuses, extend coverage to millions of Americans, get control of skyrocketing premiums and out-of-pocket costs, and reduce the deficit."

DeLauro said that Republicans and Democrats can come together "if there is a genuineness about moving forward" on health care.

The possibility of agreement seems remote, though, given the barbs thrown by both sides in advance of the summit as they jostle for advantage.

House GOP leaders have said they're wary of Democratic "legislative trickery" and a "back room deal" that would use a complex two-bill strategy to pass overhaul legislation through Congress. Some Democratic aides have outlined an approach using the budget reconciliation process in the Senate to pass a health care bill after the House approves some fixes to the Senate bill. Only 51 votes would be needed in the Senate if reconciliation is used.

Van Hollen said he's unsure about the existence of a proposed draft Democratic package at the summit. "I don't know whether the president is going to put one particular piece of legislation on the table but he has said both the House and Senate bills provide a way forward," he said.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said there are common ideas on health care among Republicans and Democrats that can be debated at the summit. "This convocation gives everyone as chance to find common ground, not necessarily to come up with one idea or one plan and put it on the table and say this is it," he said. But he also said that if disclosures such as the Anthem rate increase "are not enough to scare anyone into action, we're in real trouble."

DeLauro said the focus should shift away from discussions of how to legislate a solution. "The process is less important than the substance of what it is we are able to pass," she said.

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