June 25, 2009 / 3:34 PM / in 10 years

U.S. senators closer to $1 trillion healthcare bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators on Thursday moved closer to agreement on a $1 trillion U.S. healthcare overhaul that would extend medical coverage to nearly everyone without adding to huge budget deficits.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about newly sworn in Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington in this April 28, 2009 file photo. The U.S. Congress has started work on a broad overhaul of the healthcare system in a rare spirit of optimism, but brewing battles over its cost, scope and structure could still scuttle hopes for a solution. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and other panel members said that reducing the cost was a significant step toward getting a final package that could gain at least some Republican support.

Baucus said panel members have narrowed talks to options that bring the price tag to about $1 trillion over 10 years, down from an earlier estimate of $1.6 trillion.

“We have options that would enable us to write a $1 trillion bill, fully paid for,” Baucus told reporters after a closed-door meeting with panel members.

“We’re getting a lot closer to an agreement,” Baucus said.

Later the group of Senate Finance Republican and Democratic negotiators issued a statement affirming their commitment to reach bipartisan agreement on a bill “that will lower costs and ensure quality, affordable care for every American.”

President Barack Obama has made a healthcare plan that reins in costs and covers most of the 47 million uninsured Americans one of his top legislative priorities. He has turned up the pressure on Congress to pass healthcare reform this year and has indicated a willingness to compromise.

OUTREACH TO REPUBLICANS

Senate Democratic leaders said they need some Republican support to pass the healthcare measure.

If Republicans are going to “oppose any change in healthcare reform, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to make those changes,” said Senator Richard Durbin, the Democratic whip. “But if a handful of senators on the other side, on the Republican side, will step up and join us, we can truly make historic progress.”

Cracks have emerged in the diverse coalition pushing for an overhaul of a healthcare system that chews up 16 percent of the gross domestic product annually but trails many developed countries on measures like infant mortality and longevity.

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, a major player in the negotiations, said it was too early to say how many Republicans would back the overhaul.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, also a key negotiator, has strongly opposed Democratic demands that a government plan be created to compete with private insurance companies to cover the uninsured.

Insurers and doctors share Republican concerns that a public insurance program would drive insurance companies out of business.

“I’m certainly keeping an open mind but I am not very enthusiastic about anything that smacks of a government plan,” Hatch told reporters.

‘VERY SUBSTANTIAL PROGRESS’

Democratic Senator Kent Conrad said lawmakers would pick through the menu of options to develop a package that can earn enough votes to pass the committee and the Senate.

“Very substantial progress has been made over the last 24 hours,” Conrad told reporters.

“We now have options that will get us to $1 trillion, paid for, and do it in a way in which you still have full coverage,” he said.

Lawmakers are looking at taxing some employer-sponsored healthcare benefits to help pay for the package, a move that Obama opposed during his presidential election campaign.

Finance Committee aides said their plan as currently envisioned would provide health insurance coverage for 97 percent of the U.S. population.

To bring the package within the $1 trillion price tag, senators said they scaled back proposed subsidies to help individuals and businesses obtain insurance. But they declined to go into details.

Earlier, the panel had been looking at providing tax subsidies to individuals with incomes up to 400 percent of the poverty level. Now they are looking at scaling that back to 300 percent or lower.

The Finance Committee proposal is one of two healthcare plans in the Senate, which hopes to pass a bill before the August recess. Three committees in the House of Representatives are developing a healthcare proposal.

Editing by Xavier Briand

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