WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Critics assailed the Obama administration on Wednesday for a deal with hospitals meant to cut costs, and a top Republican said the U.S. Senate may need more than a planned month to pass a bipartisan healthcare reform bill.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid met with key Republicans on the issue while supporters of healthcare reform searched for ways to bring down the plan’s price tag of at least $1 trillion and pay for it without raising taxes on the middle class and poor.
“Our strong preference is to pass a bipartisan bill that lowers crushing health care costs for the middle class,” Reid said after the meeting, adding that he “looked forward to more Republicans joining us at the negotiating table.”
Senator Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said that the Democrats’ goal of passing a bill before the monthlong August recess might not be met.
“Bipartisan talks are going to continue, and not continue under a very hard timeline,” Grassley said.
Vice President Joe Biden announced the agreement with hospitals to save $155 billion in healthcare spending over 10 years, mainly by lowering charges for health services to the poor and elderly.
But Republicans questioned whether the deal, and a similar $80 billion agreement with drugmakers announced last month, would ultimately provide real cost savings.
“The administration and congressional Democrats are literally bullying health care groups into cutting backroom deals to fund a government takeover of health care,” said House Republican leader John Boehner.
“That will increase costs and force millions of Americans out of the health care that they currently have. The American people deserve better,” he said.
Some Democrats also wondered how binding the deals would be and what industries might ask for in return.
“The ask sometimes can exceed the value of the costs,” Senator Christopher Dodd, a leading Democrat in the healthcare debate, he told reporters on Tuesday.
President Barack Obama has made reform of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry his top legislative priority and asked Congress to develop plans to reduce healthcare costs and cover most of the 46 million Americans without health insurance.
But lawmakers have struggled to come up with healthcare packages in the Senate and the House of Representatives, as five committees in the two chambers work on bills they would like to pass before the monthlong August recess.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the draft proposal by the House Ways and Means Committee would have $500 billion in Medicare savings over 10 years, a figure that would slightly reduce the amount of revenue the panel would have to raise to pay for the plan.
Democrats have tried to trim cost estimates to make it more palatable, while Republicans have balked at proposals for a Democratic-backed government-run public insurance option to cover about 46 million uninsured Americans.
In the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Democrats have the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles, party leaders have tried to keep their shaky coalition together while gaining at least some Republican support.
Proposals for possible taxes on some employer-sponsored health benefits to help pay for the overhaul have drawn opposition from some Democrats, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said. “What we are trying to do is find a way to get to 60 votes,” Schumer told reporters.
But Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said the idea was still on the table, along with other possible revenue sources including excise taxes, surtaxes and “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco to reach a target of $320 billion over 10 years.
“There are very few things in life that are black and white. some are lighter shades of gray, some are darker shades,” he told reporters.
In his announcement, Biden said hospitals would achieve the savings mostly in Medicare and Medicaid programs but skimped on the details, pointing only to reforms in hospital delivery and payment systems.
“Folks, reform is coming. It is on track, it’s coming,” Biden said in announcing the deal.
The Obama administration previously had called for sharper reductions of roughly $200 billion from hospitals, and Joseph Antos, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the final legislation could drive up the cost for hospitals.
“It’s still very early in the game,” Antos said.
Hospital stocks ended mostly lower. Universal Health Services was down 2 percent at $49.10 per share in mid-afternoon trading, LifePoint Hospitals Inc was down 1.5 percent at $25.60, while Health Management Associates Inc ended marginally higher at $5.15 after declining earlier in the session.
Writing by John Whitesides; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Lisa Richwine; editing by Jackie Frank and Cynthia Osterman