Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Ron Wyden, saviour of health reform?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a long-time devotee of the weekly Slate Political Gabfest podcast. This week’s, even despite being down two regulars (Plotz and Dickerson), was a nice affirmation of why.

Replacing that duo—and joining the third regular, Emily Bazelon—were former Slate editor in chief Jacob Weisberg, and Big Money editor James Ledbetter. Topic numero uno was health care, the discussion of which was excellent and more soundly economically rooted for Ledbetter’s presence than is usual.

The reason I’m posting though, is that Ledbetter, concluding the topic, sang praises for Oregon Senator (D) Ron Wyden, who he praised as the most knowledgeable on the hill on the health issue, and whose Healthy Americans Act (introduced in 2007, and reintroduced a few months ago, but effectively killed by union lobbying and a lack of seniority, despite bi-partisan support and a CBO estimate that it would be budget neutral)  he gave a ringing endorsement for being simultaneously credibly budget neutral, and highly effective in reforming the system and effectively expanding coverage, competition, and choice. The Wikipedia discussion of it is pretty good for the details.

I thought I would check out the new news on Wyden, and it turns out he’s been fairly active in the last couple of weeks, cannibalizing some of the best ideas of the HAA for use in improving the health reform bill currently under discussion. His contribution has taken the form of he has called the Free Choice Proposal discussed here by Ezra Klein (WaPo), and here by John Cohn (TNR). Klein describes it as perhaps “the difference between a bill that delivers on its promise of reforming the health-care system and a bill that merely expands health insurance coverage.”

Here’s how it’s Wyden’s office has described it:

The Free Choice approach addresses the need for increased choice and portability by creating a path for employers to insure their workers through a national insurance marketplace known as the “Exchange.” Instead of just allowing some Americans to choose a health plan in the Exchange while keeping others out, the Free Choice approach would give all Americans choices. Instead of being required to either “play or pay,” employers would have a third option of giving their employees access to the Exchange. They would do this by providing their employees a fixed, affordable contribution – a voucher – to choose either their current insurance plan or an Exchange plan of their choice. Workers would then have the choice of buying more coverage if they need it or buying less to maximize the employers contribution and to keep coverage affordable.

In an interview with Klein, Wyden goes on to say:

What we tried to do in this proposal is show the sweet spot between blowing the employer-based system to pieces and, on the other hand, simply saying that we will not try to improve it. The president’s promise that we will be sensitive to not changing what people have is not incompatible with being able to choose some better.

When you tell people they can have access to a full menu of choices like members of Congress have, that’s out of the park in terms of positive reaction. But if you’re a congressperson and you’re with Blue Cross one year and then all of a sudden you decide you want to go with Aetna, your transition is seamless. Someone in the private sector wouldn’t even get that choice. We’re trying to give it to them.

[ERRATUM: The following is actually with reference to the HAA, and not the FCA as I originally thought] A major additional advantage not mentioned is that Wyden’s bill has considerable bi-partisan appeal, counting among its supporters, as told by NPR, “conservative Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to liberal Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.”

The long and short of it is that Wyden’s contributions to this debate are worth paying attention to, and his lack of celebrity / seniority shouldn’t be allowed to muzzle him over the coming weeks.

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