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Waxman On House, Senate Health Care Bills

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

On Capitol Hill today, Senate Democrats begin the process of coming up with one compromise health care bill. A small group of senators are meeting behind closed doors to try to merge the bill approved yesterday by the Senate Finance Committee with the one passed by the Health Committee earlier this year. A big difference between the two - the Finance Committee's bill has no public option, the Health Committee's bill does. More on what's going to happen in the Senate in a moment, but first, the House also has several health care bills that it needs to merge.

Democrat Henry Waxman of California is a lead author of one of them and he joins us now from Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Thank you. Pleased to be with you.

SIEGEL: First, what do you think of the Senate Finance Committee bill that was approved yesterday?

Rep. WAXMAN: I was delighted that they were able to vote the bill out. We've got to work out our differences with the House and the Senate into one bill to send to the president for his signature.

SIEGEL: Big differences over the public option and the compromise that's been proposed by Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican so far to have voted for one of these bills, is that a public option might kick in after a set amount of time, a trigger if private insurers don't live up to their end of the deal. Is that acceptable to you?

Rep. WAXMAN: Well, in the House we stand strongly behind a public option from the very beginning. I think the House will have a clear public option as a choice and we would encourage the Senate to come along with us.

SIEGEL: Here's something the health insurance industry is saying. They're saying that for them to do away with such things as caps on benefits or higher premiums when you get sick or no insurance for people with pre-existing conditions - to do all that they need to see everybody in the insurance pool. And that means there has to be a big penalty for not having insurance. How much should, say, a healthy 30-year-old who makes $40,000 a year be penalized if she does not have health insurance?

Rep. WAXMAN: We want to get everybody health coverage. We think that there's a responsibility for people to have insurance. I must say that the insurance companies are crying a little too loudly for my comfort, because they're going to make a lot of money out of this legislation. A lot more people are going to be covered, paying premiums. The idea is to spread the risk to a large pool of the population who won't be using health care services at any particular time, but it will be there when they need it.

SIEGEL: But if those people, so far, those, say, young healthies have decided so far that they should risk going without health insurance, wouldn't they make the same decision unless the consequences of making that decision were very negative, that is, the penalty they'd have to pay?

Rep. WAXMAN: Well, I think we need to really push them hard to get insurance, but I'm not...

SIEGEL: But, what does that mean to push them hard?

Rep. WAXMAN: Well, I think we've got to, first of all, make it available to them. We've got to make sure that the cost of insurance is reasonable for the budget of people who are going to be required to buy it. I think it's a reasonable requirement that we all take responsibility, including young people, for coverage.

SIEGEL: On prescription drugs, do you feel that Congress should get more out of the industry than the Senate Finance bill proposes? And can the Congress get any more than what President Obama negotiated with the drug companies?

Rep. WAXMAN: I do believe we ought to get more money from the pharmaceutical companies. I think we have a strong case to make and the agreement didn't bind us and a law has to be passed by both the Senate, the House, with the support of the president.

SIEGEL: In your book, in which you wrote about your career in Congress, you pointed out that the most important thing is to get a bill. And there are lots of complaints that people make about the bill and there are things that you will have been in favor of that you ultimately cannot get, either in your own House or in conference, but in the end you have to have a bill. Is it fair to say that just about everything you've said here today might have to be sacrificed in order to get a bill?

Rep. WAXMAN: I don't look at it that way. We're going to make our arguments and try to get the best we can and then we'll see if it's worthwhile at the end of the day to go forward. I think it will be. But we're not giving in on some of these important issues at this point and maybe we won't at all.

SIEGEL: And when you say at the end of the day, roughly what date are you thinking of as the end of the day of this process?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. WAXMAN: The end of the day will be before the end of the year when we get to a final health bill that the president will sign and we will look back on some day and say, why did it take so long for our country to have affordable good quality health care for everyone?

SIEGEL: Congressman Waxman, thank you very much for talking with us.

Rep. WAXMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Democrat Henry Waxman of California, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee with his take on where things stand in the House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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