(For more on healthcare, please click on [nN20512341])
* Senate debate could last three weeks or more
* Both sides seize on CBO analysis on insurance premiums
* Reid warns senators will work weekends
(Adds Grassley, McCain quotes, details)
By Donna Smith and John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, Nov 30 The U.S. Senate began work
on a sweeping healthcare overhaul on Monday, with senators on
both sides pouncing on findings in a nonpartisan budget report
on insurance premiums to bolster their arguments.
With the debate expected to last up to three weeks, Senate
Democratic leader Harry Reid warned senators they would work on
weekends if necessary to hammer out compromises on issues like
a government-run insurance plan, abortion coverage and holding
"The next few weeks will tell us a lot about whether
senators are more committed to solving problems or creating
them," Reid said.
In a report that gave ammunition to both sides, the
Congressional Budget Office estimated on Monday that the 70
percent of Americans who receive insurance through
employer-sponsored plans would see little change or slight
reductions in their insurance premiums by 2016.
Those who buy coverage independently could see premiums
rise by 10 percent to 13 percent by 2016, although the federal
subsidies given to lower-income individuals to help them
purchase coverage would reduce the actual costs for more than
half of that group, the CBO said.
The higher premiums would be incurred in part because they
would get more comprehensive coverage, it said.
"The analysis we received today indicates that whether you
work for a small business, a large company or you work for
yourself, the vast majority of Americans will see lower
premiums than they would if we don't pass health reform," said
Democrat Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Americans do
not want the healthcare bill to pass and the CBO report showed
why. "A bill that's being sold as a way to reduce costs
actually drives them up," McConnell said.
Senator Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the
Finance Committee, said the CBO report showed the Senate bill
would not fix a fundamental problem -- the high cost of
'MILLIONS PAY MORE'
"Millions of people who are expecting lower costs as a
result of health reform will end up paying more in the form of
higher premiums," Grassley said.
The Senate plan is designed to rein in costs, expand
coverage to about 30 million uninsured Americans and halt
industry practices such as denying coverage to those with
pre-existing medical conditions.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the
healthcare overhaul on Nov. 7. If the Senate passes a plan, the
two versions will have to be reconciled and passed again by
each chamber before they are sent to Obama for his signature.
Shares of health insurers were weak as the broader market
showed modest gains. The Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor stock
index .HMO closed 1 percent lower and the S&P Managed Health
Care stock index .GSPHMO was almost 1.5 percent lower.
Many Democratic senators have expressed concern about the
bill's effect on consumer costs and insurance premiums.
Democrats cannot afford to lose any of them in the debate --
they control 60 seats in the 100-member Senate, exactly the
number needed to overcome Republican opposition.
At least four moderate Democrats have voiced doubts about
the bill because it includes a government-run insurance option,
which backers say will create more choice but critics believe
will lead to a government takeover of the industry.
Some Democrats also hope to tighten language barring the
use of federal funds for abortions to make it match the
stricter restrictions in the House bill.
The Senate held no votes on the healthcare overhaul on
Monday. The first Republican amendment was offered by Senator
John McCain, the party's 2008 presidential candidate.
McCain proposed sending the legislation back to the Senate
Finance Committee to restore about $400 billion in cuts to
Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly.
He chastised AARP, the powerful lobbying group for seniors,
and the American Medical Association, which represents doctors,
for endorsing a healthcare reform effort he said would cut
Medicare benefits for patients and doctors.
"Shame on AARP and shame on the AMA," McCain said.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Alan Elsner)
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