CBO: Baucus bill shaves deficit by $81 billion

The Senate Finance Committee’s healthcare reform bill would cut the federal deficit by $81 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which also said the deficit tripled to $1.4 trillion this year.

But the CBO’s estimate, which puts the total cost of the finance panel’s bill at $829 billion, is “preliminary” and “significant changes” could be in store once it has a chance to review the full text of the bill, the Bloomberg news service reported.

Even so, the report sets the stage for a final vote by the committee Oct. 13. Whatever emerges from that session will go to the Senate floor, along with the Senate health committee’s version, which it passed in July. One key Finance Committee Democrat, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, said that process could take a while.

“It will be months before this is concluded,” Conrad said, according to Bloomberg.

For the Finance Committee bill to make it to the full Senate, chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) must corral both leery fellow Democrats and at least one Republican. The leading candidate for a nod from the G.O.P. side is Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), moderate who’s kept her cards close to the vest during the prolonged haggling over the measure.

Snowe wants some time to mull the CBO report before coming to a decision on the bill, the news service reported.

“I would rather have the comfort level of having sufficient time to analyze it over the weekend,” she said.

Another potential swing vote, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), said the CBO study is a move in the right direction.

“Any time the numbers improve on something, you feel real good about it,” Nelson told the news service.

Most of the tab for the measure will be paid by savings from $404 billion in cuts to Medicare and other government insurance programs. Another $201 billion comes from a 40 percent excise tax on so-called “Cadillac plans,” or generous health insurance plans, with the remainder from taxes on healthcare-related industries including medical device makers, insurers and pharmaceutical firms and from changing the way health expenses are taxed.

The bill’s proposed 10-year, $40 billion levy on medical device makers has drawn fire from within and without the industry, with key lawmakers and governors from states with large medical device clusters sending letters to Baucus claiming that the tax poses a threat to innovation and to the health of the industry.

Today saw another 14 Democratic senators, including Massachusetts’ lone voice, Sen. John Kerry, send a missive Baucus’ way, expressing concern over the proposed tax and its impact on their states’ medical device sectors.

“Medical technology companies employ more than 357,000 workers in the United States. Current estimates indicate there are as many as 6,000 medical technology firms currently operating domestically, and 95 percent of them have fewer that $100 million in annual sales,” the senators wrote in a letter to Baucus, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Senate health committee chairman Tom Harkin. “With such a large number of firms manufacturing as many as 80,000 unique medical device technologies, a one-size fits all excise tax could have significant ramifications for an industry.”

A recent estimate by securities analysts at USB Global Equity Research pegged total U.S. spending on Class II and Class III devices this year at around $101 billion. That would effectively make the Baucus proposal’s levy a 4-percent tax on device company revenues and could trim profits by as much as 20 percent a year, the analysts suggested.

No matter what form the Senate’s version of healthcare reform takes, it will still have to be reconciled with the House version, which Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said will go to the CBO for analysis tomorrow, according to Fox News.

Here’s some of the healthcare reform chatter from inside the Beltway:

  • “The [CBO] report is good news. … Our balanced approach in the finance committee to health reform, I think, has paid off.”Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.)
  • The CBO report “is only part of the story. … Most everybody is going to see their premiums go up” under the measure but the legislation is better than “other radical bills that are out there” in the House.Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)
  • “Another big step forward for enacting health reform.”White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer
  • “Considering that 25 million individuals will remain uninsured under this proposal, it does not solve our health-care issues.”Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.)
  • “The bill [the CBO report is] referring to will never see the light of day and we all know that. … That’s because the real bill will soon be cobbled together in a secret conference room somewhere here in the capitol by a handful of Democratic senators and White House officials.”Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
  • “[The healthcare reform law] has to add up to zero so that it is deficit-neutral and there is no additional debt heaped on our children.”House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

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