WASHINGTON — Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson said Wednesday that he is reviewing a potential compromise on the health care bill's restriction on federal funding for abortion coverage.
Meanwhile, a key Nebraska anti-abortion group swiftly and strongly criticized the proposal.
Nelson said the compromise, negotiated by anti-abortion Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., involves an attempt to separate private and public funds used to purchase insurance coverage, an approach that in the past failed to sway the moderate Democrat.
Nelson declined to share the language or to say whether the new language satisfied him. “I don't know at this point in time. Constituency groups haven't responded back yet.”
Nebraska Right to Life Executive Director Julie Schmit-Albin said in a statement that she had been briefed by Nelson's staff on the compromise. Nelson previously has pushed for restrictions approved by the House, called the “Stupak language.”
“From what we know, without seeing the actual language, it in no way resembles the Stupak language and still allows federal subsidies for plans that cover abortion on demand, which is entirely unacceptable for Nebraska Right to Life and thousands of Nebraskans who oppose public funding of elective abortion,” Schmit-Albin said.
She said the compromise includes an “opt-out” clause that the group finds particularly offensive. “The federal government would treat abortion on demand as if it was really health care, and then allow people to apply for status as conscientious objectors? Give me a break.”
White House and Senate Democrats continued to seek an an agreement with Nelson to become the 60th supporter of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the number needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Nelson on Wednesday disputed the growing sense that he's the last Democratic holdout in the Senate on health care.
“There are some who haven't committed who have told me that . . . they, too, have serious concerns of the same type that I've registered,” Nelson said.
He said he has unresolved concerns about the bill that go beyond abortion, including any new taxes and unfunded federal mandates.
But he also said senators must pay attention to the reality of the status quo of health care in America, citing Nebraskans being forced into bankruptcy because of medical bills, losing their health insurance and seeing health insurance premiums rise.
“I'm not sure whether I'll be able to support a bill . . . but not trying to help Nebraskans would be the worst thing I could do,” Nelson said.
Nelson has been getting plenty of advice on the health care issue.
Gov. Dave Heineman, in a letter to Nelson on Wednesday, urged the senator to oppose the health care bill, including any move to halt debate so that a final vote can be taken.
“We're at the most critical stage. Something is going to happen in the next 48 to 72 hours,” the Republican governor told The World-Herald. “This bill is bad news for Nebraska. Sen. Nelson has always said that if this bill was bad for Nebraska, he wouldn't support it.”
Heineman said the proposal carries an unfunded federal expansion of the Medicaid program — the health care program for the poor — that would have “serious consequences” for the state financially.
The governor said that most Americans want a health care bill that curbs increases in medical costs and insurance premiums. He suggested that one way to slow cost increases was to a nationwide computer system for medical records.
An analysis of the Senate bill completed by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services indicated that while the state's increased Medicaid costs would be covered in the first three years after the law takes effect, Nebraska would have $45 million in extra expenses after six years, or from fiscal year 2014 through fiscal year 2019.
The state's total budget this year is $3.37 billion.
Nelson responded with his own letter to Heineman.
“In your letter you note that the current Senate bill is not in Nebraska's best interest. I agree. That is why I continue to work to change it,” Nelson wrote.
Nelson wrote that he has proposed that the Senate bill include an “opt-in” mechanism that would allow states to avoid the issues raised by Heineman.
“Under my proposal, if Nebraska prefers not to opt in to a reformed health care system, it would have that right,” Nelson wrote.
World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press.