Baucus may move health bill without Republicans

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 9, 2009 5:38pm EDT

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) addresses confirmation hearing for Ron Kirk to be U.S. trade representative before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington March 9, 2009. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) addresses confirmation hearing for Ron Kirk to be U.S. trade representative before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington March 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Hyungwon Kang

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic U.S. senator leading an effort to write a bipartisan healthcare reform bill said on Wednesday he was ready to move forward without Republican support, but still hoped for a deal.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said his plan would be similar to one he discussed over the weekend, which included sweeping insurance market changes and a fee on companies to help pay for the uninsured.

Baucus, speaking ahead of a healthcare speech to Congress by President Barack Obama, said his plan was not likely to include a proposal for a government-run public insurance plan to compete with private insurers. He said that idea would not pass the Senate, where Republicans have depicted it as a government take-over of all U.S. healthcare.

Obama has argued that a so-called "public option" is needed to spur competition with private insurers and drive down costs. Republicans strongly oppose the idea, fearing private firms would ultimately be driven out of business.

Baucus' panel is the only one still working to produce a bipartisan healthcare bill. Other committees in the Democratic-controlled Congress have produced bills with no Republican backing.

Party leaders believe they could unilaterally enact an overhaul plan, but fear political backlash if they try.

The Montana senator has delayed producing a bill while working with five other members of his panel -- two Democrats and three Republicans -- to look for a compromise. But now time appears to be running out.

SLIGHTLY CHEAPER

The plan Baucus outlined in recent days would cost less than $900 billion over 10 years, below the $1 trillion required by other proposals.

It calls for non-profit cooperatives to compete with insurance companies and may include a new tax on insurance companies to raise about $6 billion a year and help pay for the reform plan.

The Baucus proposal, like others already floated, seeks to improve the quality of care and increase coverage of prevention and wellness programs. It would stop insurers from excluding people for pre-existing conditions or charging more because of health history.

It also would limit out-of-pocket expenses for patients, bar insurers from placing caps on benefits and expand the Medicaid program for the poor.

Senator Charles Grassley, the lead Republican in the healthcare talks, said: "We're still negotiating. And one of the rules of negotiating is that nothing's final until everything's final."

Republican leaders gave no sign they were interested in compromising on healthcare reform plans currently before Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Americans who attended town hall meetings on the issue in August wanted lawmakers to "stop, back up, start over and get it right."

House of Representatives Minority Leader John Boehner said Republicans would not be railroaded into action.

"The problem right now is they (Democrats) are in this big rush and the American people want us to do everything we can to stop it," Boehner said.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, editing by Vicki Allen)

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