Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), who serves as chairman of the health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, said on a conference call earlier Wednesday that Democrats were unlikely to vote on a comprehensive health-care reform proposal until early in 2010.
When President-elect Obama appointed former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to become Secretary of Health and Human Services last week, he described health-care reform as a priority for his administration that was an "emergency" given the ongoing economic crisis.
But on a conference call organized by the liberal group Institute for America's Future, Stark said that there was still a lot of "deferred maintenance" on the current health-care system that would have to be completed prior to a total overhaul, including expanding S-CHIP, dealing with Medicare compensation for doctors, and promoting health information technology.
In addition, he said hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and all other players in the health-care system would have to have their say. He hopes that the Obama administration will present Congress with a series of guidelines for reform, then the House and Senate will each come up with several different plans that would have to be reconciled.
"You're not going to do that in 100 days," he said, but hopes that they would have a plan by the end of next year. Giving that the following year is an election year, he said, "I'm not sure I like the idea of voting on it later than the early part of 2010."
The subject of a call was a new report issued by Jacob Hacker, co-director of the University of California Berkeley School of Law Center on Health, Economic and Family Security, arguing that a new government-run plan modeled after Medicare would have to be a part of any proposal for it to be able to achieve cost savings.
The idea would be to have that as an option on a national government-run health-care exchange in which individuals could also choose among private plans.
During the call, Stark agreed that any proposal that did not include a new public option would be a non-starter.
"In the absence of a public plan that people could opt into, you would have to so strictly regulate the other plans, that they in effect would all have to become public plans," he said.
He was dismissive when asked about Republicans protesting the fact that since government is running the exchange, it could rig the rules of the game to steer more Americans into choosing the government plan. He said that if Republicans "want to just frustrate any effort" to passing health-care legislation, then Democrats would call a vote.
Departing from the plan Obama offered during the campaign, Stark said he thought a mandate requiring that individuals purchase health insurance was crucial because you couldn't lower health-care costs without forcing healthy individuals to enter the market.
The insurance industry has said it was willing to accept new enrollees who had pre-existing conditions, but only if the government imposes a mandate. However, insurers are leery of any new government-run plan. Stark shrugged off their concerns.
"You won't get the insurance companies on board I don't think, but they are the easiest to roll, because nobody likes insurance companies," Stark said. "Somebody has to be the bad guy."
He also struck a mocking tone when asked about doctors who complain about how much they get paid under government-run health-care programs.
"To somehow suggest that whatever some heart surgeon wants for a transplant in Los Angeles, and has to make $600,000 to $700,000 a year, as opposed to maybe they make $400,000 a year with Medicare fees, doesn't get much sympathy from me," he said.
Later in the call, he added: "I have been tussling with this for over 20 years, and I have yet to see a physician come into my office talking anything about their patients -- the first thing they say is that they are going broke…That's like my kid saying they're going to hold their breath and turn blue if they don't get their second dessert."