LEWISTON — Maintaining an employer-based system for health care coverage is a priority for senators negotiating major health care reform legislation, Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe said in an interview Wednesday.

Snowe is one of six senators — three Democrats and three Republicans — who have worked methodically during all-day, closed-door meetings for weeks on what they hope will be a widely supported compromise bill to expand access to health care and control costs.

“We don’t want to create an exodus from employer coverage,” Snowe said. “We won’t mandate the kind of coverage or that (employers) have to provide coverage. If you have coverage that you like, we want you to be able to keep it.”

She said she had gotten advice from many Mainers on how to best develop a health care policy that provides universal, affordable coverage. That advice comes from a range of people, from constituents calling her office to family members trying to bend her ear.

“It’s helpful to me and I bring that input into meetings,” Snowe said. “After all of this, you have to evaluate, is this the right and best policy for America? That’s the crucial question, and it weighs heavily on all of us because we have tremendous regard for the value for this reform.”

Passing health care reform has been a major goal for President Barack Obama, who has been stepping up pressure on Congress to move forward on the issue. While other congressional committees have unveiled their proposals to mixed reviews, the Senate Finance Committee, on which Snowe serves, has yet to offer up a plan for critique.

Some liberal groups, locally and nationally, have criticized the committee’s lack of progress, but Snowe said the group is “considering thousands of pieces of the puzzle, and we just haven’t been able to put them together yet. The immense complexity and cost of what we are trying to remake is unmatched.”

Current health care spending accounts for nearly one-sixth of the overall economy, she said.

The challenging process has reminded her of her days in the Maine state Senate, she said.

More than 30 years ago, Maine Senate President Joseph Sewall told the newly elected Snowe he was naming her chairwoman of the health committee.

“I told him I didn’t know anything about health issues and he said, ‘That’s all right. We’ve got a lot of big issues to deal with and I want you there,'” she recalled. “As a result, I have an enormous deference to health care as a policy issue. It’s something that affects each and every one of us, so it isn’t about doing it fast; it’s about doing it right if you can.”

Despite recent news that a government-run public insurance plan is not currently on the negotiating table, people shouldn’t think insurance companies will be able to continue business as usual, Snowe said.

“It’s not letting the insurance companies off the hook, by any means,” she said. “We’ve imposed a lot of restrictions in the insurance market, which should do a lot in terms of making sure that people will have guaranteed” coverage.

Companies won’t be able to refuse coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, for example, Snowe said.

She said her proposal for a fall-back public option, which would get triggered if private insurers failed to meet outlined goals, is still something she would like to see.

“We could have it ready to set in motion and we would define what’s affordable, so there wouldn’t be any wiggle room (for private companies),” she said.

Snowe, who noted the nearly uniform Republican opposition to a public option, said ultimately the cost of such a government-run plan might end up outweighing the benefit.

“The key about a public option is to make sure everyone has access to affordable health care, but it comes at a significant cost to the federal government,” she said. “We are already grappling with this with Medicare. By 2017, the outflow of money for the program is going to be greater than the inflow.”

Snowe and her colleagues currently favor a co-op option, which would allow groups of people to bargain with insurance companies and garner lower rates than would be found on the individual market.

The committee was expected to unveil a bill before the Senate leaves for its August break, but lawmakers have said they haven’t reached consensus on several key issues.

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