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HELP Committee Postpones Day Of Reckoning

Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions released their health care proposal today, but left out for now the two elements Republicans dislike the most — a new government-run insurance plan and a requirement that employers provide coverage or pay a penalty.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who is managing the bill, said he would confer with Republicans over the next two days in hopes of working out some differences before the markup next Tuesday. Dodd is managing the bill due to the absence of Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is battling brain cancer. Dodd said he conferred with Kennedy over dinner on Sunday and that he plans to try to wrap up the markup before the July 4 recess.

“I have every hope Sen. Kennedy will be back to take part,” Dodd said. “I much prefer to be sitting next to the chairman rather than acting as a manager.”

But even as Dodd said he would try to work with Republicans, the panel’s ranking member, Michael Enzi, R.-Wyo., said yesterday that the draft bill was “a partisan wish-list that will put us on the road to government-rationed health care.” The final bill, Enzi said, would need to look “very different” before Republicans could support it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters that “the sooner we get the government plan off the table, the sooner we can get a (health care) program for the American people.”

The bill, according to a committee summary, would allow individuals to maintain their current coverage, while providing “new, more affordable options” for health insurance. The bill would also promote preventive services such as early screening for heart disease, cancer and depression, and provide increased funding for training of physicians, nurses and other medical personnel. Elderly and disabled individuals would receive more resources to help them live at home, such as ramps in their homes or an aide to check on them.

Separately, chairmen of the three House panels briefed their fellow Democrats on their bill, which did include requirements that both individuals and employers purchase health insurance, a government-run plan and an insurance “exchange” to help individuals and small employers purchase coverage.

The House plan also would include subsidies to help individuals and families with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level afford coverage and would prohibit insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions.

The measure also would replace Medicare’s “sustainable growth rate” method of paying physicians, who face a 21 percent cut in January unless Congress takes action. While making that change could increase the cost of the bill, it’s a necessary step, said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

“If we don’t have the doctors on board, we’re in trouble,” Rangel said. “We have to address this in this bill.”

Rangel said the bill would call for a “public plan” immediately rather than waiting to see if the private market offers affordable coverage, an idea advanced by a group of fiscally conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs.

“We’re going to have a public plan. We’re not going to wait two, three, five years to see what happens,” Rangel said.

While he has previously expressed opposition to the idea of taxing employees’ health insurance benefits as a way to finance a health care overhaul, Rangel said the idea remains on the table, although he did not seem enthusiastic.

“There’s nothing, no matter how stupid it sounds, that I’m rejecting,” he told reporters.

House Democrats plan to mark up the bill late this month or just after the July 4 recess.



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