Dems unveil first draft of health legislation

Saturday, June 20, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Democrats got a glimpse of what it would look like if their health-care overhaul ran into a wall -- and they quickly pulled back to regroup and get moving again.

Trying to regain the initiative, House Democrats on Friday unveiled draft legislation they said would cover virtually all of the nation's nearly 50 million uninsured as President Obama has promised. However, they offered few details on how to pay for it.

The president welcomed their action as "a major step toward our goal of fixing what is broken about health care while building on what works."

But in the Senate, two committees were getting bogged down, struggling to cope with a trillion-dollar-plus price tag over 10 years. Their House colleagues simply steered away from costs and focused on the promised benefits of the legislation.

Republicans weren't cutting them any slack. "I fear this plan will force tens of millions of Americans to lose their current health-care coverage," said Rep. David Camp, R-Mich., one the top GOP lawmakers on health.

One step in a march

The Obama White House played down the turmoil as nothing more than inside-Washington drama.

"We continue to put one foot in front of the other in the march toward health-care reform," declared press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Major provisions of the 850-page House bill would impose new responsibilities on both individuals and employers to get coverage, end insurance company practices that deny coverage to the sick and create a new government-sponsored plan to compete with private companies.

The insurance industry said it has fundamental problems with the proposal for a government plan but stopped short of declaring outright opposition to the overhaul.

House Democrats say they won't reveal how they intend to pay for their plan until later. Higher taxes on upper-income households appear likely, but broad levies -- even a federal sales tax -- are also under discussion.

Democrats are aiming to raise about $600 billion in new taxes over 10 years to help pay for the House bill. They would get the rest from spending cuts. Payments to drug companies are on the chopping block.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said drug makers reaped a a "windfall of billions of dollars" from the Medicare prescription benefit and Congress wants some of it back.

At issue are seniors who had been covered under Medicaid -- which requires rebates from drug makers. Their prescriptions were switched to Medicare, which doesn't.

Ken Johnson, a senior vice president for the industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, disputed Waxman's assessment. The Medicare drug benefit "pure and simple is not a windfall," he said.

Behind the scenes, drug makers are negotiating with the White House to find savings of $75 billion over 10 years.

The House leaders' news conference capped a week in which the health care overhaul effort seemed to stumble at the starting line.

A $1.6-trillion, ten-year cost estimate forced the Senate Finance Committee to delay introduction of its bill as members sought ways to scale it back. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee made little progress as it considered amendments to an incomplete bill.

The whole enterprise is "basically a gridlock," said John McCain, R-Ariz.

Democrats had a more positive description of the scene playing out across the Capitol.

"This is just tedious hard work," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "It's just slogging through options."

Despite the heightened anxiety, the shape of the debate was growing clearer.

On one side is the House Democrats' sweeping health care bill. It would require all individuals to obtain health insurance and force employers to offer coverage to their workers, with exemptions for small businesses. A new public health insurance plan, strongly opposed by Republicans, would compete with private companies within a new health care purchasing "exchange" where people could shop for coverage.

Government subsidies would help the poor buy care, and seniors in the Medicare program would pay less for their prescription drugs.

On the other side is the House Republican plan, which would focus on trying to help small businesses and self-employed people find private coverage.

Searching for the elusive middle ground are a small group of senators on the Senate Finance Committee, which had to scale back its own initial plan when cost estimates topped $1.6 trillion.

The end result may be a bill that's more affordable but covers fewer of the millions of uninsured.

The Finance panel also is looking at leaving a new public insurance plan out of its bill, instead creating nonprofit co-ops to offer insurance in competition with private companies, according to an outline obtained by The Associated Press. The co-ops could accept federal loans for startup operations but would have to repay the money.

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