Senate near bipartisan consensus on care reform

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate is near agreement on a broad bipartisan plan to revamp the costly healthcare system, and legislation is very likely to pass, a leading senator said on Monday.

Democratic Senator Max Baucus said the powerful Senate Finance Committee he chairs would propose legislation this week, estimating there was an “85 to 90 percent” chance meaningful healthcare reform would be passed in the Senate with bipartisan support.

“I’ll get you 85 to 90 percent (chance) -- bipartisan -- because enough Republican senators want to do the right thing and have spent a lot of time working on it,” the Democrat told Reuters in an interview.

President Barack Obama has made healthcare reform his main legislative priority this year, telling doctors on Monday the ballooning costs of the current system made it a “ticking time bomb.”

U.S. healthcare costs nearly 16 percent of gross domestic product, roughly twice what many developed countries pay per capita. Costs are rising much faster than inflation, yet 46 million people are uninsured and have little access to care.

Extending healthcare to cover them could cost more than $1 trillion over the next decade, but Baucus said more than half of that cost could be clawed back in the form of savings. The rest would have to come from raising revenues.

“I’m hoping to get more from savings than from revenues,” he said, sitting in his office.

Baucus, who as chairman of the Finance Committee is taking a leading role in healthcare reform, would not be drawn on the details of the bill to be unveiled this week as negotiations entered their delicate final days, but he spoke of an emerging consensus.

Only a month ago, he had talked of a 75 to 80 percent chance of getting a bill passed with bipartisan support. Now the bipartisan chances are higher.

“It’s not diverged, it’s converged -- not that something needs to be done but what that something is,” he said. “It’s probably anger at the waste, and the cost.”

Baucus said he hoped to have a draft bill ready for public review on Wednesday and a more complete proposal by Friday, in time for next week’s committee-drafting sessions.

Senate Finance is one of two Senate committees and three in the House of Representatives drafting legislation to overhaul the system. All the proposals would have to be reconciled into one bill that Obama wants by October.

Obama supports a government insurance plan to compete with private insurers, but Republicans say this could drive those insurers out of business.

In the last week, a potential compromise has emerged that would create health insurance cooperatives that would be owned and operated by their members.

Baucus said this idea had generated interest on both sides of the Senate, but there was still a lot of questions on that proposal, and “an awful lot to drill down” into its details.

Baucus has taken a leading role in crafting the legislation, which will include sweeping changes in the insurance market. Those and other parts of the legislation, including provisions to expand coverage to the uninsured, would be phased in over time, possibly as much as a decade.

“I have never attempted anything more challenging, but I have never attempted anything more fun,” he said.

There is broad agreement that healthcare costs make U.S. industry less competitive globally, but reform has eluded many presidents and Congress for decades. Obama has staked much of his political capital on the latest effort.

Editing by Philip Barbara