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Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich (AP/Photo by Susan Walsh)

High-stakes healthcare

Congress | As reform moves forward, concerns over abortion funding, added government, and higher taxes could derail the process

WASHINGTON-Healthcare reform advocates took two major steps forward this week, but conservatives fear those steps could represent two giant leaps backward for those with pro-life, limited government, and anti-tax interests.

First, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged from a series of closed-door sessions to announce that the Senate bill would include a government-run insurance option. This inclusion would come despite the fact that one of the two Senate committees with healthcare jurisdiction did not include such a public plan. Allowing the government to set both the regulations and compete against private insurers has long been one of the more controversial aspects of the ongoing debate-with many fearful that it will lead to greater federal encroachment into individual lives.

Surprisingly, soon after Reid's announcement, Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut who huddles here with the Democrats, told reporters that he might block the Senate healthcare bill if it included such an option: "The last thing that we want to do now is create another Washington-run health-insurance company."

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When other moderate Democrats, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, joined Lieberman in worrying that such an option would drive up insurance premiums, Reid and his top advisors returned to their secret meetings-without unveiling bill specifics.

No matter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped into the void, and on Thursday when she introduced in front of the flag-draped steps of the U.S. Capitol the final version of healthcare overhaul that will be debated in the House starting next week.

The bottom line: Behind-the-scenes negotiations supersized the House bill from its committee-approved size 1,017 pages to its new 1,990-page bulk. This is an increase of 648 pages from the unsuccessful 1993 healthcare plan under then President Bill Clinton.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts 6 million Americans will enter the government-run insurance plan under the House version. But the bill slowly expands those eligible for government insurance each year: Businesses with 25 employees or fewer are eligible for the exchange in 2013; businesses with 50 employees or fewer reach eligibility in 2014, while employers with 100 employees can join the government plan in 2015.

"The goal has been, and still is, clearly to open the exchange and the public plan to everyone," writes The Heritage Foundation's Bob Moffit.

Analysis by Americans for Tax Reform reveals that the House bill contains 13 new tax hikes that will cost taxpayers $700 billion in additional money over the next decade. Passing the cost onto Americans is one way that lawmakers are able to get the bill's $894 price tag under the $900 billion limit mandated by President Obama.

But the biggest burden the House bill places on the nation may be its treatment of abortion.

"Language in the bill still does not do enough to prevent federal funding from going to abortion services," worries Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.

Stupak and as many as 40 other House Democrats fear that the creation of new federal insurance subsidies for low-income earners would go toward purchasing healthcare plans that include abortion coverage.

Current law prohibits federal funding for abortion through Medicaid, the federal employee health plan, and military plans. But the new health bill creates new federal funding avenues that are not covered under current law-and theses new streams have the potential to reach a greater number of Americans than the already restricted plans.

To stop this, Stupak is pushing for an amendment that adds the abortion prohibition to the new federal subsidies. He says that pro-life Democrats combined with Republicans could derail the House bill. Stupak is continuing to negotiate, but Pelosi may try to get the House bill through under a procedure that does not allow amendments.

"Anyone voting to forbid amendments to this bill is in effect voting to set up a federal government program that will directly fund abortion on demand," warns Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. "Prominent Democrats who have claimed that the federal government could pay for abortion with 'private' funds have been engaged in a big snow job."

The fight over the pro-life amendment could come as early as next week.

In the meantime, pro-life advocates plan to gather in front of the White House this weekend. There they will lie down in the shape of the number "71," which represents the percentage of Americans who oppose taxpayer-funded abortions in healthcare, according to national polls.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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