Dems aim to send health bill to CBO Friday

Healthcare overhaul negotiators have set a Friday goal to send a completed package to CBO, although they said deal-making could stretch into Saturday.

While lawmakers must iron out several issues, the White House and labor officials shored up a tentative agreement today to bring unions on board with an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans.

Sources said the tentative agreement calls for the high-cost plan tax thresholds to be raised to around $9,000 for individual coverage and $24,000 for a family plan. That is slightly more generous than the Senate version, which began to apply the tax at $8,500 and $23,000, respectively.

Collectively-bargained plans are exempt from the tax until 2017, sources said. Dental and vision coverage are also removed from the calculation of the cost of the plan.

But one key negotiating objective of labor -- increasing the annual indexing threshold so that it exceeds the core rate of inflation plus 1 percent -- was not accepted. That means more and more health plans could be hit by the tax each year and passed down to middle-class workers.

"That's still an issue," Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said. He also said he heard that "this is something the White House is sticking to, but then there's at least going to be some opportunity in 2013 to revisit that."

The White House believes this is the only way to contain costs.

Officials cautioned there was no final agreement yet and that they were working on selling it to union membership and House Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was entering a meeting with labor officials this afternoon to discuss the deal.

One labor official predicted that because the indexing rate is still unchanged from the Senate version, that provision in particular could be a bitter pill for many unions to swallow.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said unions at the negotiating table were split over whether they could support the deal.

There was "acknowledgement of progress but there was some split amongst them," he said. He added they are concerned about getting a deal when non-union workers will be hit right away with the tax.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., a vocal opponent of the tax who sits on the Ways and Means Committee and is tight with unions, appeared pleased with what he had heard of the deal, although he had not seen anything on paper yet.

He said the tax was "substantially transformed."

House members have blasted the excise tax for hitting middle-income workers, particularly those in unions, who accept lower wages in exchange for more expensive health insurance.

"I'm not about to agree to taxing middle-income healthcare plans," Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said Wednesday. "That's just the bottom line for me."

Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said negotiations are nearly complete on other revenue raisers for the overhaul. "We're close," he said Thursday.

Other outstanding areas include whether a final measure will include a national exchange in the House bill or state-based ones in the Senate version; an implementation date of 2013 like the House bill or 2014 in the Senate measure; and how much federal help people will receive to purchase insurance. Negotiators have yet to discuss federal funding of abortions or immigration issues, Rangel said.

Leaders and committee chairmen on both sides of the Capitol hope to wrap up talks Friday or Saturday. CBO would take several days, possibly a week or longer, to produce a cost estimate necessary before a vote.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., assistant to the speaker, said negotiators have sent scorekeepers pieces of what they have been discussing "to calibrate some of the ideas that are out there and know what the costs are."

Pelosi denied Democrats have their eye on the next day or two to complete talks because of the threat of a loss of a Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts, where Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown are in a close race in Tuesday's special election.

"The fact that CBO takes so much time is more the issue," Pelosi said.

House leaders and chairmen huddled this morning to discuss overnight work following a marathon meeting Wednesday with President Obama and Senate negotiators.

Leaders will head back to the White House Thursday afternoon, and Obama is set to address House Democrats Thursday during their annual issues conference and persuade them to move ahead with the bill even if they are not pleased with the entire package.

House rank and file also have issues with other provisions in the Senate bill, particularly a commission meant to make decisions on Medicare cuts and a greater financial responsibility for a Medicaid expansion.

Berkley said Wednesday the Medicare commission "is a serious power grab" for the administration. House members do not want to give up such a large chunk of decision making, while senators feel such a move is necessary because Congress rarely makes tough decisions needed to decrease spending.

On the Medicaid expansion, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said Wednesday his home state receives $4 billion in the House bill, while it is forced to shell out $1 billion above its current obligation in the Senate version.

"So I would want to make sure that at least when monies are given to states, New York is treated more like the House version than the Senate version," he said.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has been working with Senate Democratic leadership to attempt to cover states' costs for the Medicaid expansion.

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