October 02,2009

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Jill Kozeny, 202/224-6522

Jilly Gerber, 202/224-6522

Midnight-hour changes to health bill undermine seniors, veterans and workers

WASHINGTON --- Senator Chuck Grassley said that early this morning, during final hours of work on health care reform legislation, the Senate Finance Committee agreed to changes that are bad for seniors, veterans and workers.

“These changes need to see the light of day,” Grassley said. “Americans considering what this health care proposal means for them deserve to know that Medicare prescription drug premiums would probably go up, veterans’ access to health care would be diminished, and workers’ wages could be garnished in the midst of growing unemployment and a prolonged recession, in order to pay for other spending in the health reform bill. The issues behind seniors being subjected to higher premiums in Medicare Part D also empha the reason why it’s important for senators to have actual cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office before being asked to vote on major policy changes.”

In a wrap-up amendment, committee members voted 13 to 10, along party lines, to expand the power of a newly created Medicare Commission to raise premiums paid by seniors for Medicare prescription drug coverage. Grassley said the wrap-up amendment was offered in order to add back $11 billion in Medicare cuts that were lost because of the special carve-out from the proposed Medicare Commission’s authority over spending for hospitals in the pending reform legislation. The special exception for hospitals was agreed to in secret negotiations last summer. The overall committee bill was short the $11 billion for the hospital deal after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) this week provided its score for the hospital carve-out. So, the new authority for a Medicare Commission to raise prescription drug premiums was added in the wrap-up amendment because additional Medicare cuts were needed to pay for the special hospital carve-out.

The wrap-up amendment, which was sponsored by Senator John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia, also gutted a provision for veterans that committee members had agreed to earlier in the mark-up session. An amendment offered by Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky was passed to prevent the tax increases in the pending health care proposal from increasing the cost of medical care provided to veterans or reducing veterans’ access to treatment. The wrap-up amendment wiped out that protection by turning it into a mere study to be conducted by the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Grassley said the change may have been made to try to cover up the fact that the underlying bill could reduce assistance for veterans’ medical care in order to meet budget neutrality rules for the bill. He said that due to lack of customary consultation on the matter, there was no way to know how gutting the Bunning amendment addressed any technical issues.

Additionally, the wrap-up amendment nullified an amendment sponsored by Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, which committee members earlier had adopted on a 21 to 0 vote, to safeguard workers’ wages from being reduced because of the effect of fees and assessments on employers. Here, again, Grassley said, the late-night wrap-up amendment approved by the majority gutted the amendment by transforming the legislation into an inconsequential study by the Secretary of Labor.

Grassley is Ranking Member of the Committee on Finance.