WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said on Monday he would revise his healthcare reform bill to ease concerns among fellow Democrats about the affordability of insurance requirements for low- and middle-income families.
The shift came one day before the committee begins consideration of a sweeping overhaul of the $2.5 trillion industry, President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.
Committee members have filed 564 potential amendments to the Baucus proposal — many focused on ways to reduce costs for individuals and make insurance more affordable under the plan.
To help ease what he called “legitimate” concerns, Baucus is considering an expansion of subsidies to help purchase insurance, a reduction in penalties for not buying insurance and an increase in the level where an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans kicks in.
“We’ve come a long, long way to satisfy affordability concerns,” he told reporters after an evening meeting with panel Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Baucus said he would pay for the changes with $28 billion in surplus created by the bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last week that the proposal would reduce the deficit by $49 billion over 10 years.
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 shop for insurance. In addition to the tax on high-cost insurance plans, the proposal would levy fees on healthcare companies and expand Medicaid, the healthcare system for the poor.
Many Democrats have questioned whether the subsidies are generous enough, and panel Democrats had offered amendments similar to the changes considered by Baucus.
Other amendments put forward by Democrats would require a government-run public insurance option, which is not included in the bill, and strike the bill’s alternative provision for nonprofit cooperatives to inject competition into the insurance market.
Obama has pushed for a sweeping overhaul that would rein in costs, create competition for insurers and expand coverage to many of the 46 million uninsured people living in the United States — his top domestic priority.
But the initiative has been besieged by critics and slowed by battles in Congress, where elements of the insurance and healthcare industries have lobbied hard against parts of the plan.
The Senate panel is the last of five congressional committees with healthcare jurisdiction to take up a bill. It is expected to spend at least three days working its way through the amendments before a final vote.
Despite months of negotiations with three Republican committee members, Baucus so far has been unable to win any Republican support for the bill.
Editing by David Alexander and Chris Wilson