Dead on arrival?

Photo By DAVID ROBERT Sen. Harry Reid’s penchant for secrecy in the health-care fight was generating opposition to a new proposal.

Players on both sides of the health reform issue struggled
this week to figure out the meaning of the new Democratic health care
legislation.

Their task was complicated when U.S. Sen. Harry Reid declined to
release copies of the legislation, generating wide suspicion.

“It is a consensus that includes a public option and will help
ensure the American people win in two ways: one, insurance companies
will face more competition, and two, the American people will have more
choices,” Reid said in a prepared statement after the new
legislation was announced.

But various analysts, reporters and lobbyists were skeptical of his
statement in view of his refusal to release the legislation. Many
questioned whether the public option—let alone the
“robust” public option promised—was still alive.

The confusion was widespread. In televised discussions of the new
measure, panelists said things like, “It has a lot of moving
parts and a lot of details we don’t know yet,” (Jacob
Hacker on the PBS News Hour) as they speculatively discussed leaked
details that might or might not have been accurate. The Washington Post
reported that “confusion reigned on Capitol Hill.”

Some even denied that there was a new bill. “There’s no
specific compromise,” said Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of
Louisiana.

Many figures were committing to support or oppose the legislation
based on leaked information. Back in Nevada, one advocate of health
care reform said she did not like what she was reading: “It
sounds like they are putting the slow, inefficient and predatory
insurance companies back in charge.

While losing liberal support, the new measure—whatever it
exists—seems not to have picked up centrist or moderate votes.
Democrats Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln, Republican Olympia Snowe, and
independent Joseph Lieberman all spoke disparagingly of the new
proposal. “The supposed health-care deal cut by Harry Reid is a
non-starter,” Nelson said.

Even among Reid’s party colleagues, information was uncertain.
The New York Times reported, “Senate Democrats said on Wednesday
that they were not sure exactly what was in a deal that the majority
leader said would surmount a disagreement over a proposed
government-run health plan.” The Democrats’ own second in
command, assistant Democratic floor leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, did
not know what was in the legislation. When John McCain complained about
the secrecy, Durbin responded, “I would say to the senator from
Arizona that I’m in the dark almost as much as he is. And
I’m in the leadership.” Durbin said the Democrats
“want to basically see whether or not it works” before
disclosing it to the public. Normally, public scrutiny is part of that
process of seeing whether legislation works.

The legislation was developed in marathon secret meetings, in
contravention of Democratic pledges of transparency, which also helped
to cultivate suspicion. The new legislation reportedly replaces the
public option with a Medicare “buy-in” option for those
from 55 to 64 years old and a series of nonprofit healthcare policies
modeled on the health benefits federal employees get. Later reports
said it would also allow insurance companies to cap annual benefits,
something Democrats had previously opposed.

On the other side of the capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
cherry-picked the new legislation, saying she could live with the
Medicare provision but avoided embracing the package as a whole.

M.S. Bellows in the Huffington Post wrote, “Reid is resorting
to duplicity to keep people from looking too closely at its contents.
… When reports first broke last night that Reid was abandoning
the public option, Reid’s office insisted that the public option
is still alive and well … But when [Talking Points Memo] obtained
the deal’s main points from a knowledgeable staffer, it became
clear that the only ‘public option’ still on the table is a
very limited, expensive and still-uncertain Medicare buy-in and an
insurance-industry-controlled “trigger”—stopgaps that
no one following the [health-care reform] debate could confuse with an
actual public option of the kind previously under
discussion.”

Robert Reich, an economic populist and member of the Clinton
cabinet, was scathing in an email sent out by MoveOn: “I’m
here to tell you that this is no deal: It’s a gift to Big
Insurance, plain and simple. The details are sketchy. The only thing
that’s really clear is the deal would drop the public option from
the bill. With no public option, there’s no guarantee of real
competition. And without real competition, health-care costs will
continue to be out of control. But the deal is far from done. If voters
generate a massive outcry around this and progressive leaders in
Congress fight back, we can fix it.”

The suspicion was exacerbated by apparent pleasure in the insurance
industry over the new legislation. Immediately after the new measure
was announced, an industry player wrote an emailed synopsis to a
blogger: “We win, administered by private insurance companies, no
government funding.”

Senior citizen lobbyists were lukewarm toward the measure, and
critics of health-care reform exploited Reid’s secrecy.

Reid said he did not want to release the legislation until the
Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed it, which he called
“long-standing practice.”

“As is long-standing practice, we do not disclose details of
any proposal before the Congressional Budget Office has a chance to
evaluate it,” the senator said. “We will wait for that to
happen, but in the meantime, tonight we are confident.”

But Bellows said that Reid “rolled out his original HCR
proposal on Nov. 18 without having a CBO score. … So: Reid
discussed his original bill on national TV and deployed staffers to
spend an hour talking to the media about its wonkish details before it
received a CBO score. But Reid won’t share even the broad
contours of the new deal, other than misrepresenting its abandonment of
public option, because of ‘long-standing
practice?’”

The way the secrecy generated confusion was seen when a report by
the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was released on Dec. 11.
News reports failed to explain whether the report referred to the
Democrats’ old or new legislation.

The nervous Democrats demanded a fast read on the new proposal from
what the New York Times called the “overworked team of brainiac
analysts” at the CBO, but it had not been released at press time.
Reid’s previous health care measure had already been scrutinized
by the CBO, which said that it would reduce the federal deficit by $130
billion in its first 10 years.

One Nevada freedom of information advocate noted that Reid was
already under fire for the secrecy surrounding that previous bill,
since it meant that lawmakers would not know what they were voting
on.

“The bottom line is that Senators will be voting to proceed to
a bill on Friday that they have yet to see and will have little time to
read before the first critical vote,” wrote the Heritage
Foundation’s Brian Darling on Nov. 18. “Sadly, the
secretive procedure used to roll out this legislation has severely
restricted the rights of Americans to participate in this
process.”

Congress does not have the kind of public disclosure or open meeting
laws that state legislatures have, and with people taking positions on
a bill they had not yet been permitted to read, it was clear that the
secrecy was costing Reid something.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.