U.S. senators vote to encourage healthy behavior

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 30, 2009 10:21pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday adopted a measure aimed at rewarding healthy behavior in a sweeping healthcare overhaul sought by President Barack Obama as lawmakers pushed to complete the legislation.

The Senate Finance Committee voted for an amendment offered by Republican Senator John Ensign and Democrat Thomas Carper that would allow health plans to provide financial incentives for people to quit smoking, exercise more and engage in other healthy activities.

"I believe that the key to achieving savings is to provide rewards for people who engage in healthy behaviors," Ensign argued. The measure passed on a 18-4 vote despite concerns expressed by some Democrats as well as committee Chairman Max Baucus that it could raise insurance premiums for people who do not participate in wellness programs.

Baucus said the measure needed some refinement. "I agree with the concept, I am going to vote for it; it needs a little cleaning up frankly," he said.

The amendment is one of several considered by the committee Wednesday, its sixth day of consideration of the sweeping overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system.

Earlier, the panel rejected two attempts by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch to strengthen the bill's anti-abortion provisions, with Democrats arguing the amendments would create new limits on a woman's right to an abortion.

Democrats on the panel also beat back a Republican attempts to repeal a $6.7 billion fee on insurers, a key element of the overhaul proposed by Baucus, and to strengthen provisions to deny benefits to illegal immigrants. But the panel accepted a measure aimed at making sure the proposed health industry fees and taxes do not raise the cost of veterans' healthcare.

The committee also voted to exclude the elderly from a proposed reduction in medical cost deductions for taxpayers.

The bill, one of five healthcare measures pending in Congress, is designed to rein in costs, regulate insurers and expand insurance coverage to many of the 46 million uninsured people living in the United States.

ABORTION RESTRICTIONS

The measure includes a provision ensuring no federal funds could be used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

But Hatch offered an amendment requiring women to purchase a separate policy for abortion coverage under the bill.

"As a woman I find it offensive," said Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow. "This is an unprecedented restriction on what people can buy in private insurance market."

The panel rejected the proposal on a 13-10 vote, with Republican Olympia Snowe siding with Democrats and Democrat Kent Conrad siding with Republicans.

A second Hatch amendment that would have toughened rules protecting the rights of hospitals and other providers to decline to perform abortions for conscience reasons also failed on a 13-10 vote.

The panel hopes to complete work in the next few days, and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid canceled a planned Senate recess scheduled to start on October 13 in anticipation that healthcare will advance to a debate on the floor.

"With all the things going on here, it just would not be right for us to take that week off," Reid said.

The committee Tuesday rejected a government-run "public" insurance option as part of the healthcare overhaul, Obama's top domestic priority.

Reid will merge the panel's final bill with a measure passed earlier this year by the Senate Health committee before the full Senate takes up the issue.

The Senate Finance bill would require all individuals to purchase insurance and offer subsidies on a sliding scale to help pay for it. It would create state-based exchanges where individuals and small businesses could shop for insurance.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Chris Wilson)

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