* Senate bill calls for insurance market overhaul
* Leaves blank details of proposed government health plan
* Obama promises Medicare and Medicaid savings
(Adds new material throughout)
By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, June 9 Leading Senate Democrats
unveiled on Tuesday a plan to reshape U.S. healthcare that calls
for sweeping insurance market reforms and prohibits insurers from
denying coverage or charging more due to medical history.
The measure also would require individuals to buy insurance,
provide subsidies to help make coverage affordable and set up a
new government plan to help provide medical coverage for the
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee's
bill is one of at least three healthcare proposals brewing in
Congress, which Democrats hope will lead to legislation that
President Barack Obama can sign into law by October.
"Our goal is to strengthen what works and fix what doesn't,"
Senator Edward Kennedy, chairman of the committee, said in a
statement that accompanied the bill's unveiling.
Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and a second
group of U.S. senators led by Senate Finance Committee Chairman
Max Baucus are developing similar proposals. Baucus has been
working with Kennedy's panel and is expected to unveil his
version of the bill in the coming days.
Meanwhile Democratic members of the House Ways and Means
Committee, one of three panels writing the House version of the
bill, met with Obama to discuss the legislation. The White
House issued a statement saying the group agreed that the cost
of the overhaul, which some estimates put at about $1.2
trillion, should not add to budget deficits.
The White House said Obama -- under pressure from critics
over his huge spending and deficit plans -- would soon spell
out more cost savings for the Medicare and Medicaid health
programs for the elderly and poor.
MORE WORK NEEDED
The Kennedy panel will hold a public hearing on its bill on
Thursday and will begin considering amendments in public sessions
beginning on June 16, the committee said.
"Much work remains, and the coming days and weeks won't be
easy. But we have a unique opportunity to give the American
people, at long last, the health care they need and deserve," said
Kennedy, who is in his second year of fighting brain cancer.
Obama has called on Congress to pass legislation this year
to overhaul the $2.5 trillion healthcare system, aiming to cut
costs and ensure that millions of Americans now without health
insurance get coverage.
But many congressional Republicans have criticized
Democratic proposals for including a public insurance program
that would compete with private insurers.
In a bow to Republican concerns, Kennedy's committee bill
leaves open the details of how such a plan would operate. Panel
Democrats and Republicans are set to meet this week to try to work
out differences over the public plan.
Also still to be worked out are details on whether
employers would be required to offer insurance to workers.
The House and Senate bills would establish an exchange, a
kind of clearinghouse, where people and small businesses could
shop for insurance. Lawmakers want the proposed new public plan to
be an option offered in that exchange.
Democrats say a public plan that competes with private
insurers is the only way to contain costs and keep premiums low.
Republicans and insurers argue that it would drive insurance
companies out of business and lead to an entirely government-run
U.S. healthcare system.
"If you don't have a public option, who is going to keep the
insurance companies honest?" said Senator Charles Schumer, a
member of the Senate Democratic leadership. "Most of us don't
believe that government regulation will be sufficient because they
have the profit motive."
(Writing by Donna Smith; Editing by Xavier Briand)