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The Burlington Free Press (Vermont)

Sanders Drops Push for Public Option

Vermont senator doesn't want to undermine chances for overall passage


Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will postpone a push for a public option in the health care overhaul bill, acknowledging such a fight "could undermine the entire process."

The National Journal reported on its Web site Thursday that Sanders and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., would shelve an amendment to the bill during the reconciliation process in exchange for assurances the proposal would be resurrected later.

A statement by Will Wiquist, a Sanders spokesman, confirmed the report. "Bernie is a strong supporter of a public option and will continue to work to create a system that provides competition for private insurance companies as a way to hold down skyrocketing premiums," Wiquist said by e-mail. "He thinks majorities in the House and Senate would support a public option."

"Given the very delicate situation at this time and the challenge facing Speaker Pelosi as she rounds up votes, Bernie and other senators have concluded that offering a public option amendment now could undermine the entire process." Sanders told the National Journal, "We've got four years (before) the exchanges come into effect. We'll continue to fight.

"The process does not end today, if this thing is passed," he said. "We are working right now on some language ... to make sure that we get a vote as soon as possible after this thing is passed."

The concession by Sanders and Merkley is considered a victory for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry  Reid as they attempt to stitch together fragile support for the bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced Thursday the final health reform package headed for House and Senate votes will recognize the early investment Vermont has made in its Medicaid program, meaning more than $100 million in added funding for Vermont's Medicaid programs over the next 10 years.

The Medicaid solution for states such as Vermont was one of the last issues to be resolved in final work on the plan. Leahy, with support from Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, D- Vt., pushed for the remedy, which fixes underfunding for Vermont as an "early leader" state that offers more generous Medicaid programs than much of the country.

Leahy said, "My argument throughout these negotiations was clear. Vermont should not be punished for doing the right thing. It was also a compelling argument because it is widely known that Vermont has been a leader in expanding health insurance coverage over the last 15 years."

The Medicaid expansion is intended to insure more low-income Americans while also addressing variations in eligibility and benefit levels across current state Medicaid programs.

To encourage state responsibility for newly eligible Medicaid beneficiaries, an earlier draft of the Senate bill included a formula giving states a 100 percent match for the expanded population for the first three years, and an enhanced match for that population for all other years. That formula unintentionally disadvantaged Vermont and other "early leader" states, leaving them unable to have "newly eligible" enrollees under the Senate definition - meaning Vermont would not have benefited from added Medicaid funding

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