Could Olympia Snowe Be the Key Healthcare Reform?

olympia_snowe2The name Olympia Snowe (R-ME) has been prominent in the debate on healthcare reform —  and for good reason.  Snowe is the lone Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee who is still talking with Democrats to shape the ultimate bill.  This willingness to engage the opposition party gives Snowe significant leverage because she may provide the 60th vote that Democrats need to prevent a Republican filibuster.  In return, Snowe is likely to get what she wants in healthcare reform legislation — affordability.

Snowe’s perspective may be due to the fact that she represents a relatively poor state whose health insurance market is dominated by a single large firm that charges some of the country’s highest premiums.  Maine insurance costs are rising at nearly four times the rate of wages, hurting the small businesses that form the core of the state’s economy.

Even though Democrats are actively courting Snowe, her “yes” vote is not guaranteed.  She voted with Senate Finance Committee Republicans when they insisted that Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) submit his measure to the Congressional Budget Office to determine the bill’s price tag.  Additionally, Snowe was the sole member of Baucus’ bipartisan “Gang of Six” who complained that the federal subsidies included in the bill to help low- and middle-income people buy insurance were too small.  Baucus’ response was to increase the size of the subsidies.

Snowe’s most provocative input to the healthcare debate is her proposal for a trigger that would set in motion a Medicare-like, government-run public option to provide affordable coverage if private insurers don’t step up to the plate.  “It would be a safety net, a fallback mechanism,” Snowe says.  She points out that a similar idea was effective to stimulate competition in the Medicare prescription-drug program.

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