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Waxman Says He'll Hold Hearings on House Overhaul Plan

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

May 4, 2009 – Although Congress has been holding plenty of hearings on overhauling the nation's health care system, the timetable for action on the issue outlined by key lawmakers has left little time if any for public hearings on whatever plan they develop. But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman told a health care conference Monday that he does intend to hold hearings on the approach being developed by three committees in his legislative chamber.

Those hearings may be on something that falls somewhat short of a final House bill, however.

Waxman began his remarks to a Washington, D.C. conference sponsored by the consulting firm Avalere Health by saying, "I want to make a few predictions: one, that the House of Representatives will pass a health reform bill by the end of July; secondly, that before this year is up the Congress will pass a bill, and thirdly the president will sign it."

Waxman said the staff of the three committees will develop a proposal to create a common starting point. He referred to the proposal as a "framework" from which each of the committees might in some respects move in its own direction. The three panels are the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Ways and Means Committee and the Education and Labor Committee.

"And next month or so, that proposal will be made public," Waxman said. "Then, after that, Chairman Pallone and I intend to hold hearings to get the views of the stakeholders. We intend to follow a transparent markup process." New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone, Jr. is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.

After each committee acts on the common proposal, differences might be resolved by House leaders before the measure is brought to the floor, or through the amendment process once the bill is on the floor, Waxman said. Asked after his speech whether the hearings would be on a specific bill or on the common framework, Waxman said a bill but "with various decisions that are yet to be made by our committee."

Although questions are growing about how universal coverage would be funded — cuts in Medicare hospital inpatient payments proposed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services late last week raise questions about what room there would be to cut hospital payments to fund universal coverage — Waxman said, "This whole health reform will result in all Americans getting covered."

And he gave no signs of retreating on a "public plan" alternative to private coverage of the uninsured. Some analysts have wondered whether Democrats might consider as a sufficient alternative a guarantee that a government-run plan for the uninsured would be available in parts of the country where private coverage options do not exist.

Waxman, however, rejected that approach when questioned by a reporter. "I think we need a public option certainly in the areas where there's no private option, but we need it elsewhere as well," he said. "We want a public option that can be available throughout the country. It'll be different from one place to another, but it will be one of the options."

Waxman suggested that critics have exaggerated fears of the public option, saying it isn't meant to ultimately bring an end to private coverage but merely to provide "creative tension" between public and private plans that will foster innovation and efficiency. "A public plan does not mean government socialized medicine that we see in other countries," he asserted. It does not aim to put the private health insurance industry out of business. "We want competition but we don't want anyone to win the race outright," he said.
Waxman noted that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a newcomer to the Democratic party, said over the weekend that he opposes the public plan concept. But once House bill language is written proposing the public plan alternative "people will say this is no great threat to anyone," Waxman predicted.

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