Knoxville News-Sentinel - Michael Collins
With the health care debate shifting to the U.S. Senate, Tennessee's two senators signaled Monday they will not support the package of reforms that Democrats are pushing to overhaul the nation's health delivery system.
U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker predicted the proposed reforms would cause insurance premiums to rise, cut Medicare services and pass billions of dollars in costs on to future generations.
"I believe that if the American people read the bill, they will not want us to vote for it," said Alexander, R-Maryville.
Corker, R-Chattanooga, added: "I am puzzled why my colleagues would even consider voting for this, especially anyone who has concerns about our country's fiscal condition."
Senate Democrats are under pressure to pass health care reform and give President Barack Obama a victory on one of his signature campaign promises now that the U.S. House already has approved its own version of health reform.
The House's $1.2 trillion package, passed late Saturday night on a narrow 220-215 vote, would require most Americans to carry health insurance and would provide federal subsidies to those who otherwise could not afford it.
It also would require large companies to offer coverage to their employees, place tough new restrictions on the insurance industry and offer an optional government health plan.
U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, and Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, were the only members of the Tennessee delegation to vote in favor of the House plan.
Senate leaders have yet to reach a consensus on a bill, but their final package is expected to closely resemble a plan already approved by the Senate Finance Committee.
That plan, which would cost less than $900 billion, would not require employers to provide health coverage for their workers, but it would impose a number of taxes and fees to expand coverage.
Unlike the House version, the Senate package does not include a government health plan. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to add a public option to the measure, but has said he would let states opt out if they choose to do so.
In a brief interview Monday, Alexander said he would not support the Senate Finance Committee plan.
"I'm a 'yes' vote on taking steps in the right direction to reduce costs, but I'm a 'no' vote on these bills that raise premiums, raise taxes, cut Medicare, increase the debt," he said. "And the Senate Finance Committee (plan) is one of those."
Alexander said he is "shaken to my roots" by Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen's predictions that the Medicaid expansion requirements in the proposals could cost the state as much as $1.4 billion.
"I don't see how the state can afford to pay for that unless it institutes a new income tax or damages higher education, or both," he said.
Corker said he's also concerned the Medicaid expansion would lead to "a huge unfunded mandate" that would put Tennessee and other states in a "painful situation."
Corker argued the Senate Finance Committee plan is based on budget "gimmickry," would cost taxpayers nearly $1 trillion and would actually lead to higher premiums in Tennessee.
He cited a study sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of America, which indicated that four "cluster states," including Tennessee, would see a 60 percent increase in average claims per member.
Corker said he expects the Senate to pass a bill that is different from the House version, but he called the Senate Finance Committee proposal "a really poor piece of legislation."
"The fundamental building blocks of this bill are tremendously problematic," he said. "I don't see how anybody could support this legislation."