12.14.09

How He Became a Holdout

On Al Gore's ticket, Joe Lieberman campaigned for a Medicare buy-in. Now he could derail the health care bill to get rid of it. His message maker explains the aboutface.

On Al Gore's ticket, Joe Lieberman campaigned for a Medicare buy-in. Now he could derail the health-care bill to get rid of it. His message maker explains the aboutface.

Charged with changing his position on the Medicare buy-in at the heart of the Senate health-care debate, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) indicated through a spokeswoman that he changed his views on the proposal in response to elements of the Finance Committee bill that he believes would effectively provide the same benefit the buy-in provision carries with it, The Daily Beast has learned.

At issue is a proposal to let Americans 55 and over who do not have employer-based insurance "buy in" to Medicare, which would offer another option for one of the groups that has the most difficulty finding affordable insurance. The policy was meant to placate liberal lawmakers who would be giving up an immediate public option, which is opposed by several moderate Democrats—and Lieberman—as part of the deal.

Video screenshot

The Medicare buy-in allowed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to announce a deal, claiming to have the votes needed to pass a bill. But Lieberman threw the deal into doubt on Sunday, when he went on CBS' Face the Nation to again threaten to filibuster the bill if the Medicare provision was not taken out. He then met privately with Reid to personally criticize the buy-in provision.

The move has infuriated supporters of an overhaul, especially given that Lieberman campaigned on the Medicare expansion himself in 2000 while part of Al Gore's presidential ticket.

The apparent aboutface drew a hailstorm of criticism from liberal bloggers, who claimed that Lieberman had supported this very idea not long ago.

A spokesman for Lieberman told CNN that the senator had, in fact, changed his view, arguing that conditions had changed in the intervening years:

Lee Siegel: Joe’s Moral Failing “This is nine years later, and we have a huge national deficit and a program [Medicare] that analysts indicate is in dire fiscal straits in 2009," Lieberman spokesman Marshall Wittmann said. "If anyone believes that the situation has not changed, they also believe that Tiger Woods is not a controversial figure at this moment."

But critics quickly pointed to a recent interview with the Connecticut Post of September 2009, in which the senator talked about expanding Medicare as an alternative to a public option, as proof that Lieberman's policy evolution was a blatant flip-flop. In that article, reporter Devon Lash described Lieberman's position thusly: "By allowing citizens who are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid to buy in for a rate below the private market, the government can extend coverage to more of those who are currently uninsured, he said."

Lash told The Daily Beast that she was basing her claim on an video of the senator’s interview. In the video, Lieberman explains his 2000 position, contrasts it with a public option, which he opposes, and at no point says that he has changed his views on a Medicare buy-in in the intervening nine years.

Said Lieberman in the video:

"When it came to Medicare, I was very concerned about a group post-50, more like post-55... people who have retired early or unfortunately been laid off early and lose their health insurance and they are too young to qualify for Medicare. And what I was proposing was that they have an option to buy into Medicare early and again on the premise that that would be less expensive then the enormous cost—if you're 55 or 60 and you're without health insurance and you go in to buy it, because you're older, although to me still young and vital.... and you're rated as a risk so you'll pay a lot of money."

Another spokesperson for Lieberman, Erika Masonhall, told The Daily Beast that Lieberman only dropped his support for the measure after the Baucus bill was voted out of the Senate Finance Committee, and only because it included a provision limiting the added amount insurers could charge on premiums based on a customer's age.

"Senator Lieberman has long been concerned about making health care more affordable, especially for those over the age of 55 and not yet eligible for Medicare. One idea that has been discussed for years is expanding Medicare to people younger than 65," Masonhall explained to The Daily Beast via email. "Senator Lieberman's comment reported by the Connecticut Post in September was made before the Finance Committee reported out the Baucus bill, which contained extensive health-insurance reforms, including a more narrow age rating for pricing health-insurance premiums and extensive affordability credits that would benefit this specific group of individuals. These health-insurance reforms and affordability credits have been strengthened in Senator Reid's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and will provide even greater relief for those 55-65 years old. Any inclusion of a Medicare buy-in for that same age group would be duplicative of what is already in the bill, would put the government on the hook for billions of additional dollars, and would potentially threaten the solvency of Medicare, which is already in a perilous state. The senator also has concerns that this provision would result in cost-shifting that would drive up premiums for others, including those with employer-based coverage."

The Congressional Budget Office has yet to score the bill, offering no indication yet of whether or not premiums would be driven up by a Medicare expansion.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.