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* US Senate panel makes little headway on healthcare
* Panel members battle over programs for seniors
* Panel rejects Republican call for delay in final vote
* Lawmakers reject amendment on Humana controversy
(Adds Medicare votes, details)
By John Whitesides and Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, Sept 23 The Senate Finance
Committee rejected a Republican move on Wednesday to delay a
final vote on a broad healthcare overhaul as it slowly waded
through a crush of amendments on programs for the elderly.
Democrats repeatedly rejected Republican proposals on a
series of largely party-line votes through a long day that
barely made a dent in hundreds of pending amendments to
Chairman Max Baucus' proposal.
Baucus and his fellow Democrats rejected Republican efforts
to restore cuts in some areas of Medicare, the government-run
insurance program for the elderly, and defeated a politically
charged Republican measure sparked by the controversy over a
letter from insurer Humana Inc. (HUM.N) to its customers.
Republicans also demanded more information on the bill's
budgetary impact and called for the Democratic-controlled panel
to slow its deliberations on the reform plan, which Baucus had
hoped to bring to a final vote this week.
Democrats said the requests were a tactic to stall
President Barack Obama's top domestic priority, a broad
overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry that would
rein in costs, regulate insurers and expand coverage to many of
the 46 million uninsured people living in the United States.
The panel, which has a 13-10 Democratic majority, rejected
a Republican effort to delay a final committee vote until the
bill could be put into legal language and posted on the
Internet, and budget experts could estimate its full cost.
Baucus said Senator Jim Bunning's proposal would create at
least a two-week delay as the Congressional Budget Office
completed its final analysis of the bill.
'WHAT IS THE RUSH?'
"If it takes two more weeks, it takes two more weeks," said
Republican Olympia Snowe, the only panel Republican considered
a potential supporter of the final bill. "We're talking about
trillions of dollars in the final analysis. What is the rush?"
Instead, the panel approved Baucus's pledge to post a
preliminary CBO cost estimate on the committee website before a
final vote -- a step that makes it highly likely a final vote
will spill over to next week.
The Baucus plan is the last of five bills pending in
Congress on a healthcare overhaul that has been slowed by
intense political skirmishing and criticism from all sides.
In one of the day's sharpest exchanges, the panel rejected
a Republican effort to keep the agency that administers
Medicare from interfering with contractors that express their
views about the healthcare bill to their elderly customers.
The amendment was inspired by the battle over Humana, which
contracts with the government to provide insurance through
Medicare Advantage, a program that augments the public plan
with private insurance.
Humana sent a letter to its participants warning the reform
bill would mean "millions of seniors and disabled individuals
could lose many of the important benefits and services that
make make Medicare Advantage health plans so valuable."
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ordered
Humana to stop and described the mailings as misleading. Health
insurers called it a gag order, and committee Republicans said
it was a free-speech issue.
Democrats, saying it had little to do with constitutional
rights and more to do with corporate responsibility, rejected
Senator Jon Kyl's amendment.
The S&P Managed Health Care index .GSPHMO of large health
insurers' stock prices fell for a second straight day as
several analysts said the amendments to the Baucus bill were
generally unfavorable to the industry.
Under the Baucus plan, all U.S. citizens and legal
residents would be required to obtain health insurance, with
subsidies offered on a sliding scale to help people buy it. The
plan would create state-based exchanges where individuals and
small businesses could shop for insurance.
It does not include a new government-run insurance program
-- the "public option" -- that would compete with private
insurers. That is included in the other four healthcare bills
in Congress and is backed by Obama and liberal Democrats.
The Baucus plan calls for the creation of nonprofit
cooperatives as a way to ensure competition among insurers.
Membership in the cooperatives would be offered through state
insurance exchanges where small businesses and individuals
could shop for health coverage.
House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed a
public option, strongly opposed by the insurance industry, will
be included in a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled
House. The insurance industry and some drug makers have lobbied
against the healthcare overhaul.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said Congress should
stand up to them. "We have got to show the American people that
we can overcome the power of the insurance industry and the
pharmaceutical industry. That's what it's all about," he said.
(Editing by David Alexander and Will Dunham)