10/16/2009 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats: Stop Kissing Elephant Trunk and Reform Health Insurance Right

The meeting got testy. Voices rose last Thursday among Democrats over differences in the Senate Finance and Health committee versions of insurance reform.

Max Baucus defended his committee's bill, voted out last week with one Republican, but lacking a public option and burdening the middle class. He said, according to reports by Sen. Evan Bayh:

"We are doing the best we can."

Maybe Baucus is doing the best he can, considering the fact that his committee, in search of Republican support, has been kissing elephant trunk so long it doesn't know which end is up.

Democrats must stop appeasing elephants whose intent, frankly, is to squash health care reform. Dems have a supermajority in the Senate. They have the support of the American people for health insurance reform - with the latest polls showing more than 60 percent back the public option. And the power of opponents is waning, as last week's failed attempt by the insurance lobbying organization America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) to scuttle the Senate Finance Committee bill showed.

On Tuesday, as the Senate Finance Committee moved toward a vote, Baucus admonished:

"Colleagues, this is our opportunity to make history. Our actions here will determine whether we extend coverage to more Americans . . . Now is the time to get this done."

That's all true. Except there's one more thing: it must be done right. There's no "best we can" when Democrats have a supermajority in the Senate and massive popular support for reform.

Right includes a public option. This is crucial to lower costs. Don't take my word for it. Take that of Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. He noted in his Oct. 16 column in the New York Times that AHIP objected to the public option because the public plan officials would negotiate for better prices. "Isn't that an argument for, not against, such a plan?" Krugman asked. The public option, which is offered in the Senate Health Committee bill and House versions of reform, would create competition where there is none. Competition would drive down costs, which have risen exponentially, inexorably and annually - prompting too many companies to drop coverage for workers or increase fees and co-pays to the point where coverage is unaffordable.

The right way means passing reform without burdening the middle class. The Baucus bill smacks a 40 percent tax beginning in 2013 on plans valued at $8,000 for individuals or $21,000 for families, with some adjustments. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that this would quickly affect 40 percent of all plans. Officially, this tax would be levied on insurers, but there's no question that they would pass that cost forward to the insured- further hiking up the price of insurance. The House legislation offers a much better approach - a surcharge on millionaires. They've gotten eight years of huge tax breaks under the Bush administration. It's time for them to give a little back.

The right way also means that all employers must pay their share of costs. More than 160 million Americans receive health insurance as a benefit at work, but more than $1,000 of the cost of those family plan premiums goes to cover the cost of the uninsured. And those uninsured are mostly people whose employers fail to provide health insurance. The only way to apportion these costs fairly is to require employers to provide health insurance or, alternatively, contribute a meaningful sum toward the cost of workers' coverage.

The right way to reform does not penalize individuals who cannot afford to obtain coverage more than employers. Health care reform must ease the burden on workers and families, not worsen it.

Baucus is correct about one thing. This is an historic moment. But the "best we can" must include the public option. It must mandate that employers pay their fair share of costs. And it must not further burden workers. Forget the elephants and serve the Americans desperate for real health insurance reform.