Obama, Baucus push U.S. healthcare reform

WASHINGTON Thu Sep 17, 2009 7:13pm EDT

1 of 3. U.S. President Barack Obama greets crowds at a rally on health insurance reform at the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, September 17, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pitched his U.S. healthcare reforms to college students on Thursday and Senate Democrats searched for common ground after some criticized elements of a highly anticipated new plan.

Facing a lack of support from Republicans, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus met fellow Democrats to explain his $856 billion 10-year plan to rein in costs and reshape the way Americans get insurance coverage.

Democrats spoke confidently afterward about getting a bill on Obama's top domestic priority through Congress.

"We're not counting votes, we're not at that point, but I think people emerged from that room feeling for the first time in a while that we're going to get things done," Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer told reporters after the meeting.

Several Democrats criticized the new proposal, one of five healthcare bills pending in Congress. They questioned the lack of a government-run insurance option and whether a tax on high-cost policies would make coverage too expensive for low- and middle-income Americans.

"The driving issue in all the debate is affordability, particularly for middle-class folks," Senator Ron Wyden said. "The Democratic caucus is very much committed to getting this issue right. This is a smell-test concern."

Obama's overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry has been besieged by critics and slowed by intense battles in Congress, where elements of the insurance and healthcare industries have lobbied hard against parts of the plan.

Opinion polls show Americans are divided over the effort, designed to rein in costs, improve care, regulate insurers and expand coverage to many of the 46 million people in the United States who now have none.

Nearly 45,000 people die in the United States each year -- one every 12 minutes -- in large part because they lack health insurance and cannot get good care, a Harvard Medical School study showed on Thursday.

Obama tried to stoke enthusiasm for his healthcare overhaul with a campaign-style rally at the University of Maryland near Washington, the latest in a string of public and media appearances to push the issue.

"We are closer to reform than we have ever been but this is the hard part," he told students, who were key supporters in his presidential campaign and are an important target of his healthcare and economic policies.

Obama said he would seek common ground with Republicans and his door was always open to negotiate but he would not waste time with those trying to kill his healthcare overhaul.

"I never said change would be easy," he told 15,000 people packed into a college basketball arena. "Change is hard. It has always been hard. Civil rights was hard. Getting women the right to vote was hard."

'A LOT OF SIMILARITIES'

Obama delivered no opinion on the Baucus bill, saying only that all five measures in Congress "have their strengths and there are a lot of similarities between them."

The Baucus plan would require all U.S. citizens and legal residents to obtain health insurance, offer subsidies on a sliding scale to help people buy it, levy fees on healthcare companies and insurers, tax high-cost insurance plans and expand Medicaid, the healthcare system for the poor.

It would create state-based exchanges where individuals and small businesses shop for insurance.

Instead of a government-run "public" insurance option favored by liberals to create competition in the market, it calls for the creation of non-profit cooperatives.

The Baucus proposal is the only pending congressional bill that does not have the public option, which critics say will hurt insurance companies and amount to a government takeover.

A bill passed by the Senate Health Committee and all three bills passed by panels in the House of Representatives have a government-run plan.

"I fully support the public option. The public option will be in the bill that passes the House of Representatives," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Senate Democrat Sherrod Brown said "it would be very hard" to vote for a bill without a public option but noted that many senators were going to have to back measures they did not fully agree with.

"The public option has gotten strong support and there are a handful of Democrats elected to office who aren't for it, but I think in the end they vote for it," Brown said, adding a bill with a public option "absolutely" could pass the Senate.

After months of closed-door negotiations by three Republicans and three Democrats on his panel, the Baucus bill drew no Republican support.

"I don't think there's any chance that these big government healthcare proposals are going to pass either the House or the Senate," Republican House Leader John Boehner told reporters.

After Senate Finance Committee members met with Baucus to discuss the bill, he said there was "no fireworks, no anger, no bitterness or acrimony in any direction."

He repeated his belief that some Republicans would back the measure by the time it passes the committee level.

"I think we are going into the amendment process with the understanding that there will be some changes," Senator Charles Grassley, one of three Republicans who negotiated with Baucus on the bill, told reporters.

The legislation will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee next week and the finished product will be merged with the Senate Health Committee bill for action by the full chamber, probably in October.

With congressional elections in 2010, Obama has urged Congress to finish work on the issue by the end of this year.

In a nod to Republicans, the White House on Thursday allocated $25 million to support grants to states for a pilot program on reforming medical malpractice laws to help bring down healthcare costs.

The long-sought Republican goal is also included in the Baucus bill.

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Thomas Ferraro, Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Philip Barbara)

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