Kennedy secretly crafts health care plan

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EXCLUSIVE:

From his sickbed, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has secretly been orchestrating meetings with lobbyists and lawmakers from both parties to craft legislation that would greet the new president with a plan to provide affordable medical coverage to all Americans, a measure he has called “the cause of my life.”

Mr. Kennedy has been sidelined for months with a dangerous form of brain cancer. But despite his disheartening medical prognosis - or maybe because of it - aides and activists say, the Massachusetts Democrat’s decades-long quest for health care reform may now be closer to success than ever.

“There is a serious process moving forward and that augurs well,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit health care advocacy group. “There really is a sea change that should not be underestimated in terms of attitude.”

Among those who are receptive to a bipartisan plan and who have participated in the initial talks is Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate health committee, which Mr. Kennedy leads.

The meetings “are a testament to how people feel about him,” Enzi spokesman Michael Mahaffey said. “Senator Enzi is looking forward to working with Senator Kennedy on this issue.”

Mr. Kennedy’s goal, his aides say, is to introduce a universal health care bill as soon as the new Congress convenes next year and to push quickly for its passage - a much-accelerated timetable compared with the last time that a health care overhaul was on the agenda, at the start of the Clinton administration.

“Senator Kennedy has spent the last several weeks laying the groundwork for reform so that we can be ready to go in 2009,” said his spokesman Anthony Coley. “This is and has been the cause of Senator Kennedy’s life.”

He also hopes the bill’s fortunes will be helped by the extensive private consultations between his staff and major players in the health care system. His aides have met with representatives of business groups, labor unions, consumer organizations, insurers, physicians, drug companies and hospitals.

President Clinton’s health care initiative faltered 15 years ago largely because he was unable to gain the support of many of these key factions after constructing a plan that kept many Congress members in the dark for months.

Mr. Kennedy is also moving with the knowledge of the presidential candidate who’s now leading in the polls, Sen. Barack Obama, and appears determined not to repeat the Clinton-era mistakes.

While Mr. Kennedy is shooting for universal coverage, the two men running for president - John McCain and Mr. Obama - have their own plans that many analysts say fall short of that goal. An Obama Senate aide sat in on many of the early Kennedy meetings; no McCain aide did.

The wide-ranging talks have taken place behind closed doors on Capitol Hill and have been monitored by Mr. Kennedy through daily telephone updates from his staff, said his aides and several participants.

The discussions, which started in June, included 14 roundtable meetings in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. These were attended not only by Kennedy aides but also by staffers, both Republicans and Democrats, from the Senate committees with jurisdiction over health care. Those include the Budget Committee, the Finance Committee and the committee that Mr. Kennedy leads, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Also attending was the entire panoply of interest groups with stakes in the cost and availability of health coverage. These included the AFL-CIO, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Retail Federation, the Federation of American Hospitals, the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Families USA, AARP and the Consumers Union.

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About the Author

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations. His firm represents a variety of corporations.

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