WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s administration sought to regain momentum on healthcare reform on Wednesday as lawmakers, stunned by the trillion dollar price tag, delayed the legislative timetable for the program.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, echoing Obama’s own calls for speedy reforms, told an audience of Democratic activists that there was no time to waste on the administration’s chief domestic policy priority.
“The cost of doing nothing will render us a second-rank nation on into the future,” Sebelius told the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “Our businesses can’t afford it, our families can’t afford it and, frankly, we can’t sustain it.”
Soaring healthcare costs undermine the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, strain state and federal budgets and drive many Americans into bankruptcy, even as 46 million Americans remain with no health insurance.
Republicans and others are stepping up criticism of parts of the healthcare overhaul package being hammered out in Congress, from the cost of the changes to the question of whether to create a new government-run insurance program to compete with private insurers.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that reforms proposed in a Senate Finance Committee bill would cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years — a price that senators on the panel say is more than they want to spend.
Senators on Wednesday moved to delay announcing the bill until its costs could be brought closer to the nearly $1 trillion that Obama has proposed in budget cuts and savings to pay for the measure.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said earlier this week he expected a draft bill by Wednesday and a finished proposal by Friday. It now appears likely the bill will not be ready until next week and the amendment process might not start until after the July 4 holiday recess.
“We will have a mark (a bill) when we are ready,” Baucus said. “It’s too early at this point to know when it will be ready.”
Despite the delay, Baucus said he expected to send a bill to the full Senate for passage by the time lawmakers break for a monthlong recess in August.
Democratic Senator Kent Conrad told reporters it was a good idea to slow down the legislation. He said one of the main expenses was tax subsidies to help people who do not have employer-sponsored insurance, and a small adjustment of this could change the overall cost substantially.
“We have to get the policy right,” Conrad said. “We need more time to evaluate options.”
The Finance Committee is one of two Senate panels working on the legislation. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday began amending its version of the Democratic-written bill amid Republican criticism that it was too expensive and would still leave millions uninsured.
Healthcare reform is Obama’s top legislative priority, one of several he believes are needed to put the U.S. economy back on sound footing as it emerges from the current recession.
The United States spends some $2.5 trillion annually on healthcare but leaves millions uninsured with limited access to the system — putting it behind other developed countries on many important public health measures.
Sebelius underscored that Obama believed healthcare reform should be not be allowed to add to the deficit — already at dizzying heights. She also rejected Republican criticism that a new public insurance program would drive private competitors out of business.
Editing by Will Dunham