Sen. Max Baucus was in Kalispell Tuesday reassuring local business owners that the health care overhaul bill that passed Congress would ultimately benefit them and their employees. Speaking to a crowd of about 30 at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, Baucus, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, described the controversial legislation as a moderate policy that would begin to rein in health care costs and reduce the deficit, help cover millions of uninsured Americans and end some of the most harmful practices by insurance companies.
As Democrats pivot from the prolonged health care debate to focus on the economy and job creation, Baucus, a lead author of the health care bill, framed the legislation as a benefit to small businesses in Montana, an estimated 24,200 of which will qualify for new tax credits under the bill.
“With unemployment as high as it is in the Flathead,” Baucus said, “we’re especially sensitive to finding ways to get that unemployment down.”
Under the bill, businesses with fewer than 25 employees and average annual wages of less than $50,000 can receive a tax credit for up to 35 percent of the employee’s premium, if the employer contributes at least half of the total premium cost. Beginning in 2014, when the major components of the bill are scheduled to take effect in the form of state-based exchanges, employers who use the exchanges to cover their employees can get a tax credit for two years of up to 50 percent.
“That applies whether you’ve been providing insurance in the past or not,” Baucus said.
He also sought to reassure those present that the vast majority of Montana business owners would not be penalized by the so-called “Shared Responsibility Requirement,” which fines employers with 50 or more workers $2,000 if those workers obtain premium tax credits through the health exchanges, beginning in 2014. But firms with less than 50 employees are exempt, which would apply to 96 percent of Montana’s businesses.
“You don’t have to worry about a thing,” Baucus said, adding that according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, once the exchanges are in place, premiums will eventually reduce to a level 14 percent less than if the legislation were not in place. He also characterized the bill as a work-in-progress, that will be subject to Congressional oversight as well as scrutiny from the private sector as it kicks in to gauge what works and what doesn’t.
“Some is going to print out better than expected, some is going to turn out worse than expected,” Baucus said. “It’s my considered judgment that this thing is going to turn out better than today it meets the eye.”
Acknowledging the bill was forged amid white-hot partisanship, he took aim squarely at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who Baucus said stymied his attempts over the summer to negotiate bipartisan support for the bill in the Finance Committee with Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
“The Republican Party made a calculated decision based on politics to try and tear this apart,” Baucus said. “I saw Mitch McConnell chew Chuck Grassley’s ear off until there was nothing left.”
Baucus characterized legal challenges to the health care bill by several states’ attorneys general as being “85 percent politics.”
As for policy ideas stressed by the GOP to bring down health care costs, like tort reform, Baucus said the CBO concluded such a provision would make for a minor decrease in health care costs and could increase mortality rates.
“There should be more robust tort reform in the legislation, but to be candid, that was just not in the cards,” he said. “My honest view is that tort reform is helpful, but it’s not quite as helpful as people like to think it is.”
And though he didn’t mention the president by name, Baucus framed the health care bill, like Barack Obama has done, as a plan that appeals to Americans’ higher instincts to provide medical care to those who need it, while still maintaining a for-profit health care industry.
“To what degree are we all in this as a country?” Baucus said, “because health care is indiscriminate.”
“We have to figure out a way we’re working better together while we’re making a buck,” he added.
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