(For other stories on healthcare reform, click [nN20512341])
* Senate Finance Chairman Baucus revises healthcare bill
* Republicans say committee being pressed into vote
* Affordability, public option issues in spotlight (Adds Cornyn quotes, details)
By John Whitesides and Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Democrats pushed on Tuesday to make insurance reforms more affordable for workers and Republicans decried what they called a rush to judgment as a key U.S. Senate panel began debate on a sweeping healthcare overhaul.
Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee said they feared many of the changes under Chairman Max Baucus’s plan would hurt low- and middle-class families, and Baucus unveiled a revised bill to ease their concerns.
After the failure of months of negotiations, Republicans on the panel complained they were being pressured into making hasty decisions on an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry, President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.
“The cry of impatience has won out,” said Senator Charles Grassley, the panel’s senior Republican and a member of the “Gang of Six” negotiators who failed to reach an agreement. “They have put moving quickly over moving correctly.”
Committee members will consider 564 potential amendments to the proposal over the next few days as the raging battle over the reforms enters a new phase in Congress.
The finance panel is the last of five congressional committees to take up a healthcare bill.
Baucus said his “common-sense” plan took the best ideas of lawmakers in both parties with the goal of attracting the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles in the 100-member Senate.
“This is our opportunity to make history,” Baucus said. “The question is whether we can seize the opportunity and change things for the better.”
Obama has pushed for a sweeping healthcare overhaul that would rein in costs, improve care, regulate insurers and expand coverage to many of the 46 million uninsured people living in the United States.
SLOWED BY BATTLES IN CONGRESS
The healthcare overhaul has been besieged by critics and slowed by battles in Congress. Elements of the insurance and healthcare industries have lobbied hard against parts of it.
To address concerns, Baucus incorporated some amendments into his bill to expand subsidies to help buy insurance, reduce the penalties for not purchasing insurance and raise the threshold on the tax on high-cost insurance plans for those in high-risk jobs and for retired workers aged 55 and older who are not eligible for Medicare.
He also removed a provision in his original bill placing a fee on clinical laboratories and slightly raised the annual fee paid by health insurers.
Under the plan Baucus unveiled last week, 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. The proposal also would levy fees on healthcare companies and insurers, tax high-cost insurance plans and expand Medicaid, the healthcare system for the poor.
It does not include a government-run insurance option included in the other four bills in Congress, but substitutes a provision for a nonprofit cooperative as a way to create competition for insurers.
‘WE CAN DO BETTER’
“I think we can do better,” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said. “This bill does not hold insurance companies accountable.”
The White House released research on Tuesday showing insurance premiums have risen faster than inflation in every U.S. state -- by between 90 and 150 percent in the past decade, while consumer prices have risen 28 percent [ID:nN21287346].
The debate in Congress has raised passions on both sides, with health insurers accusing the U.S. Medicare agency of political interference for investigating a letter Humana Inc HUM.N sent enrollees about the overhaul. [ID:nN22365760]
The agency also sent a warning to other insurers against sending potentially misleading mailings about the reform bill to customers.
Committee Republicans said the overhaul would amount to a government intrusion in the healthcare sector and urged Democrats to slow down. “This bill is a stunning assault on liberty,” Republican Senator Jon Kyl said.
Senator Olympia Snowe, another negotiator and the only panel Republican seen as a possible supporter of the measure, said she regretted what she described as a premature end to the talks but said the bill was “a solid starting point.”
In a long discussion of the Baucus revisions, Republicans said before any final vote they wanted time to evaluate the completed bill and see an analysis from congressional budget experts on what it would cost.
“I need to know and I think others need to know what it is we’re voting on, what’s in the bill and what it costs,” Republican Senator John Cornyn said.
Baucus, who hopes to finish work on the bill this week, urged Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf to provide a speedy analysis of the financial implications of the final bill.
Elmendorf said analysts in his office have been working around the clock since the weekend to determine the budgetary implications of the hundreds of amendments.
Republicans have offered 292 amendments, including proposals to eliminate the individual insurance requirement, allow purchase of insurance across state lines and eliminate the fees on healthcare industries.
Snowe offered an amendment making the government-run public insurance option an emergency option if coverage remained too expensive.
Her “trigger” option would establish a government-run plan in any state where affordable coverage -- as defined by a portion of an individual’s income -- was not available to 95 percent of residents. (Editing by David Alexander and Sandra Maler)