Senate Moves Health Reform Debate Forward

The Senate voted 60-39 this weekend to begin debate on its version of the health care reform bill. According to early analysis, the Senate bill would impose new regulations on the health insurance industry and create regional insurance exchanges that include a public insurance option.

The bill would outlaw insurance company policies that deny coverage based on preexisting conditions, gender or lifetime caps on claims. In addition, the bill would allow laid-off workers to keep the insurance they have.

The bill would pay for reform through a combination of new taxes on the richest Americans and on insurance companies with the most expensive insurance plans. The $849 billion price tag would also be covered by ending huge government payouts to the privatized Medicare plans created by the Bush administration.

The bill, known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, would require everyone to buy health insurance. It would assist low and moderate income Americans to do this with new subsidies.

It also mandates employers in larger firms to buy insurance for their employees. Small businesses would see new tax credits and subsidies to buy coverage.

The Senate bill would give consumers the choice among insurance that either include or exclude abortion coverage, but would deny federal funds to pay for abortions.

The bill would also provide new protections for America’s elderly against abuse and neglect, a measure sought by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

In a statement, Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, applauded the release of the Senate bill. “The introduction of the Senate's health insurance reform bill puts us closer than ever to providing families in America with insurance coverage they can count on,” she said.

The Senate bill “would prevent insurance companies from denying or dropping coverage based on gender, age, or a pre-existing condition,” Ness added. “It also triggers some badly needed changes to the way we pay for and deliver health care that would result in both quality improvements and cost-savings.”

Director of White House Office of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle expressed strong optimism about the final passage of the bill. “The challenges facing our health care system aren’t new,” she told reporters late last week. “We know they’ll get worse if we fail to act. “

A letter from 20 leading health economists to President Obama this week praised the Senate bill because “it will reduce long-term deficits, improve the quality of care, and put the nation on a firm fiscal footing.”

In an e-mail to constituents, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said that bill will go through a dramatic amendments process before final passage. “At the end of this process,” she explained, “I hope to support legislation that stops unfair practices by insurance companies, makes health care affordable for families and small businesses, and protects Medicare for years to come.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, in a floor speech before the vote to begin debate, said that her support for reforms centers fixing the impact of the current broken health system on small businesses. “The unpredictable and unsustainable and skyrocketing cost of healthcare to small businesses in America is damaging their ability to grow,” she noted.

A White House Council of Economic Advisors report last summer indicated that small business owners pay an 18 percent premium on health insurance plans for themselves and their employees. Small business owners say that rising premiums have made health coverage unaffordable.

President Obama lauded the release of the new bill and urged quick action. “From day one, our goal has been to enact legislation that offers stability and security to those who have insurance and affordable coverage to those who don’t, and that lowers costs for families, businesses and governments across the country,” the president said in a statement Nov. 18.

On the eve of the vote to begin debate, the Obama administration declared its full support for passage of the Senate bill. “This bill provides the necessary health reforms that the Administration seeks – affordable, quality care within reach for the tens of millions of Americans who do not have it today, and stability and security for the hundreds of millions who do,” a White House statement read.

According to Majority Leader Harry Reid's office, the bill would reduce the federal deficit, control the growth of health care costs and provide nearly universal coverage. A CBO score of the bill agreed. In the first decade the reform package would reduce the deficit by almost $130 billion and another $650 billion the next decade.

A majority of Americans appear to support major provisions in the new bill. A recent poll by the Associated Press showed that almost six in 10 Americans support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to pay for health reform. Several other polls show that a majority of Americans want health reform to include the choice of a public insurance plan.

Reid’s office said that the bill should be ready for amendments after the Thanksgiving recess.