- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

Senate Democrats said Thursday that their health care plan would cost $611 billion over 10 years, a dramatic drop in cost that could bring their proposal greater support in the Senate.

The plan by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee was originally priced by the Congressional Budget Office to cost more than $1 trillion.

But the plan doesn’t include the cost of expanding Medicaid or potential savings from Medicare, which doesn’t fall under the committee’s jurisdiction but will have to be included in a reform plan. The cost of the bill, therefore, likely would increase when it is merged with the Senate Finance Committee plan, according to CBO.

Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who are leading the effort to get the plan passed, finalized their bill this week, leading to the new estimates.

Mr. Dodd said in a conference call with reporters that the revised bill and cost estimate set the committee on a path toward passing a reform bill. Mr. Dodd has been leading the effort in Washington while Mr. Kennedy has been fighting brain cancer.

“Our bill, combined with the work being done by our colleagues in the Finance Committee, will dramatically reduce the number of uninsured - fully 97 percent of Americans will have coverage, a major achievement,” the senators wrote in a letter to colleagues.

The earlier version of the bill would leave about 36 million people uninsured and cost more than $1 trillion.

The revised bill comes days before Congress returns from its Fourth of July break and enters what could be an intense monthlong race to complete and pass a health care bill by August. President Obama has said he wants a reform bill on his desk by October.

Mr. Obama also has said that any health care plan must be fully funded.

“Today, the Senate HELP Committee has produced legislation that lowers costs, protects choice of doctors, and plans and assures quality and affordable health care for Americans,” Mr. Obama said in a statement Thursday.

The senators, in a letter to colleagues, also said that their revised plan would eliminate any chance that employers would drop their coverage for employees. Republicans have expressed concern that employers would eliminate insurance if a public option was created, leading individuals to flood the public insurance program.

Employers would have to pay $750 for every full-time employee that they don’t cover. The payment would only be required of companies with 25 or more employees.

The bill requires employers to provide insurance. Individuals would also have to obtain coverage. But there are exceptions for small businesses and the poor. The bill also includes the creation of a public health option - called the Community Health Insurance Option. It has proved to be controversial with Republicans and the insurance industry, but the senators reinforced their support.

“Like the president and a strong majority of Americans, we believe that a strong public option is an important component of any health reform bill that keeps costs down, expands coverage, and offers American families a wide variety of affordable options,” the senators said in the letter.

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