The Senate Finance Committee narrowly passed an amendment Thursday from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that moves the conservative panel as close as it will likely get to a public health insurance option.
The amendment creates a "federally funded, non-Medicaid, state plan which combines the innovation and quality of private sector competition with the purchasing power of the states," according to an overview.
It would be available to people with incomes above Medicaid eligibility but below 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- a very narrow window. However, Republicans fear -- and progressives hope -- that once the plan becomes law there will be pressure to expand it.
The plan would not be free. It is based on Washington state's Basic Health plan, which costs roughly 60 dollars a month, with the remainder of the premium subsidized by the state.
Private insurers would be eligible to participate in the plan, as would HMOs or other networks of health care providers.
The amendment has been gathering steam all week and was the subject of an extended private session of the finance committee Thursday afternoon before the vote, chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said.
Baucus and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), both of whom voted against public option amendments Tuesday, supported Cantwell's measure. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) was the only Democrat to join each Republican in voting no. It passed 12-11.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) opposed the amendment, meaning that it could still be removed when Democratic leaders merge the finance bill with the previously passed health committee bill, if the purpose is to secure Snowe's support on the Senate floor.
Yet Democrats are increasingly negotiating the final details of health care reform within their own party, leaving the GOP to protest process. Republicans on the committee objected to the Cantwell amendment, arguing that there was no accompanying budget-impact estimate. On Wednesday, Cantwell and Baucus told HuffPost they were waiting for such an estimate, but Baucus decided to move ahead. "I have to use my judgment," he said before the vote.
Cantwell says that her measure -- which can be read here -- would assure coverage of 75 percent of people who are currently uninsured. If you're a Washington doctor, nurse, patient or any other resident of the state who has experience with the Basic Health Plan, let me know what you think of it either in the comments section or at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please include in your e-mail whether you want your name used.)
UPDATE: The reader responses coming in, which I'll continue to read and synthesize more thoroughly tomorrow, indicate that those who are in the plan are generally happy with it, but many, many people can't get into it due to its lack of sufficient funding. Several readers noted that when you go the plan's website, you're greeted with this: "To stay within the appropriated budget, Basic Health is no longer processing incoming applications to determine eligibility and has officially implemented a waiting list. New applicants will be placed on a list behind those already waiting. When space becomes available in the future, Basic Health will release names from the list in date-received order and notify applicants."