- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Senate Democrats went public with their first health care reform plan Tuesday, a sweeping bill that would create a publicly funded insurance plan that would cover those without private insurance.

They saythe bill aims to reduce costs and expand coverage by banning insurance companies from excluding people with pre-existing medical conditions and promoting early screening for illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.

“Our goal is to strengthen what works and fix what doesn’t,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the bill’s lead author, said in a statement.

“Much work remains, and the coming days and weeks won’t be easy. But we have a unique opportunity to give the American people, at long last, the health care they need and deserve,” the Massachusetts Democrat added.

The draft did not detail how the reforms would be paid for. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, who is managing the committee’s work as Mr. Kennedy battles brain cancer, said the bill is not a complete plan. He said Democrats on the panel still hope to work with Republicans on other aspects of the legislation.

“I want my Republican colleagues on the committee to know … I am open to discussion,” he said.

The committee’s bill is one of a number of plans floating around the Capitol.

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, which is writing a bill more focused on how to pay for reform, revealed new details on the idea of taxing employer-provided health care benefits. It’s a controversial idea that has divided Democrats and angered labor unions.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, trying to tamp down concerns about a tax on benefits, said lawmakers are considering putting a cap on how much would be taxable and that it may not go into effect for a number of years. Mr. Baucus said the cap would likely be set at more than $13,000, but said the amount hasn’t been determined.

The finance panel is also considering a provision that would allow existing plans to be “grandfathered” under current rules leaving them tax-free, but Mr. Baucus again warned that the details still must be worked out.

House Democrats appeared more eager to tax the benefits, which in 2007 constituted $133 billion in potential new revenues. President Obama said the bill must be tax-neutral - meaning any viable bill must raise revenue to pay for the increased cost of providing care.

The House committees with jurisdiction over health care - the Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor committees - briefed Democrats on their plans Tuesday, which include taxing employer benefits.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, said he expects the publicly funded insurance plan to be included as well, despite vehement objections from private insurers and many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t see why it should be objectionable to anybody - to have the consumer be able to make a choice,” he said when asked about Republican objections.

The Senate health committee has set up an ambitious agenda to debate the bill, holding a markup hearing beginning early next week and possibly lasting two weeks until the Fourth of July recess. The Senate Finance Committee has not yet introduced a bill and is about a week behind that schedule.

Members from both committees stressed that they want to pass a bipartisan bill, but those hopes appear to be all but dashed with the decision to include the public insurance plan option.

“For health care reform to work and have broad support, it needs to be bipartisan,” said Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, ranking Republican on the health committee. “Unfortunately, the draft bill that Democrats released today is a partisan wish list that will put us on the road to government-rationed health care.”

Republicans on both the finance and health committees Tuesday sent a letter to Mr. Dodd and Mr. Baucus asking for up to 10 days to review the bills before they are marked up, information on how the bills will be paid for and time for the Congressional Budget Office to provide cost estimates.

• Jennifer Haberkorn can be reached at jhaberkorn@washingtontimes.com.old.

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