The top House lawmaker in charge of writing health care legislation said Thursday he is committed to passing a universal health care package by the end of the year, just hours before the Senate was expected to approve an expansion of a popular children's medical insurance program.
"This is our time, we need to move forward, we need to get this job accomplished this year and get the bill to the president," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman at a conference sponsored by Families USA, a liberal health care advocacy group.
Meanwhile, the Senate was poised to pass a $32 billion expansion of the State Children's Heath Insurance Program, or SCHIP, late Thursday. The program is a federal-state initiative for families that don't qualify for health care through Medicaid but can't afford private insurance.
Mr. Waxman, whose promise was met by a standing ovation by hundreds who attended the downtown Washington event, said health care reform done properly would be a boom - not a bust - to the nation's economy because it would ensure average Americans wouldn't be saddled with costly medical debt.
"The economic times which are so difficult is another reason why we need to do it right away," he told reporters after his speech. "The health of our economy depends on a great extent on our dealing with the health of our health care system."
Mr. Waxman didn't say when this year he would like to introduce a comprehensive health care reform package.
"I'm waiting to talk more to the administration and work that through with them, and my colleagues in the House and the Senate," he said. "We're going to have to coordinate our efforts."
Two months ago, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, presented an outline for a universal health care system. And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and longtime health care reform advocate, is working on his own plan.
But Mr. Waxman said private insurers would play a significant role in the implementation of universal health coverage, adding that relying solely on a Canadian or European-style single-payer system is unrealistic in the United States.
"Reform in the health care system to achieve universal coverage has to come by building on the system that is in place - adjusting it, improving it to fill the gaps," he said. "I believe we must have a significant role for private insurance, but I think it's critically important that we have a public [health care] program alternative."
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, speaking at the conference earlier in the day, expressed a similar commitment to universal health care. But the Maryland Democrat was more cautious on a time frame than was Mr. Waxman, instead promising to "bring comprehensive reform to the floor of the 111th Congress," which concludes in January 2011.
The Senate's SCHIP measure would expand the program for another 4 1/2 years at a cost of $32 billion. The measure would add about 4 million children to the 7 million already covered in the program, which would expire at the end of March without congressional approval.
The House already had passed a similar version.
The expansion, which would be paid for with a 61-cent federal tax on cigarette packs, would give President Obama a high-profile down payment on his promise of universal health care coverage.