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Leaders in Congress draw healthcare battle lines
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two powerful members of the U.S. Congress drew up battle lines on Tuesday over one of the most fundamental questions underlying healthcare reform -- how much government health programs will be involved.
California Democrat Henry Waxman told a meeting of the Federation of American Hospitals any new system would include a significant role for private insurance but would work best with "creative tension" between public and private insurers.
Waxman, chairman of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, supports making use of the clout of Medicare, which caters for the elderly and disabled, and other government programs beyond their considerable influence on which treatments private insurers will pay for.
Roy Blunt, a Missouri representative assigned to lead the Republican efforts on healthcare reform, disagreed. "If the government is one of the competitors, eventually there are no competitors left," Blunt told the same meeting.
"Competition is important. The president said he wanted competition and wanted the private sector out there," Blunt said. "But the government doesn't have to factor in what the real world has to factor in," he added -- for example overhead and other costs.
President Barack Obama has laid out a broad framework for reorganizing the U.S. healthcare system, which currently costs more than any other industrialized country's system and yet leaves patients more dissatisfied.
Obama has proposed setting aside $634 billion for a fundamental health care overhaul, saying he would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to help pay for it.
He has made clear he would like to see a combination of public and private approaches -- extending public insurance to some of the 46 million people who currently lack any cover, and perhaps requiring people to buy private insurance.
Obama has said he wants a bipartisan agreement on healthcare reform, even though the Democrats have a big enough majority to force through legislation. Blunt said bringing Republicans on board would require compromise.
He said he did not think Americans who elected Obama gave him a strong enough mandate to justify a major shift to government-sponsored healthcare.
Waxman, whose Energy and Commerce committee will play an important role in approving any legislation, told his audience of hospital administrators that he would work with Republicans and with industry to make sure any legislation was agreeable.
When former first lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to reform healthcare in 1994 the effort was torpedoed in part by opposition from the insurance industry and an advertising campaign that convinced people who had good health insurance coverage that they risked losing it.
Waxman said Congress must "give the people the assurance that if you have got something you like, you won't lose it."
Waxman also strongly supports Obama's plan for an independent organization to compare different treatments to find out which works best, instead of leaving it up to drug and device makers who have vested interests.
Blunt said Democrats would get a fight on this, too. "An awful lot of people think that this is the first billion-dollar step toward the government deciding what kind of healthcare you should get," he said.
"If you are a 59-year-old guy like me, I am pretty sure I don't want the government making that decision."
(Editing by Donna Smith and David Storey)
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