US Senate to debate wider government health care role

President Barack Obama's top Senate ally announced plans Monday to start debate on historic legislation to remake US health care, including a controversial government-backed insurance plan.

After months of often fevered nationwide debate, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate would soon take up a bill that includes a so-called "public option" to compete with private insurers.
"It will protect consumers, keep insurers honest and ensure competition. And that's why we intend to include it in the bill that will be submitted to the Senate," said the Nevada senator.
Supporters of such a plan, which could bring the United States more in line with other industrialized democracies, say it's the best way to tame runaway US health costs and help the country's roughly 46 million uninsured people.
Opponents, chiefly Obama's Republican foes but also about a dozen swing-vote Democrats in the 100-seat Senate, say it risks competing unfairly with private insurers, driving them out of business and leading to rationed care.
Reid said the public option was "not a silver bullet" but pointed to recent public opinion polls that showed a majority of Americans support the option to pick a government-backed insurance plan.
"I believe that a public option can achieve the goal of bringing meaningful reform to our broken system," he said.
The Senate debate on the bill, a compromise between legislation from two Senate committees, will begin as soon as congressional budget analysts formally estimates how much the measure will cost -- most likely later this week -- according to Reid.
His announcement, welcomed by the White House and condemned by its Republican opponents, made it increasingly likely that Obama's historic drive to overhaul US health care this year will result in a wider government role.
Obama, who wants to complete health care reform this year, believes "we're closer than we've ever been to solving this decades-old problem," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
 "The president is pleased at the progress that Congress has made. He's also pleased that the Senate has decided to include a public option for health coverage, in this case with an allowance for states to opt out."
Republicans, who have historically opposed creating new government health care programs, waged a months-long blitz to defeat the public option and have moved to delay the Democratic health care drive.
"No matter what you call it or how you dress it up, the Democrats' proposal is government-run insurance," charged Senator Jon Kyl, the number two Senate Republican.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already said the lower chamber's version would include a "robust" public option, making it all but certain that the final legislation that reaches Obama's desk will include a broader government health care role.
Reid declined to say whether he had the 60 votes needed to ensure that Democrats -- who control exactly that many votes -- can overrun any parliamentary delaying tactics and pass the legislation.
But he acknowledged that including the provision would drive off the lone Republican to support Obama's efforts thus far, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, and said he hoped she would change her mind.
"We'll have to move forward on this, and there comes a time, I hope, where she sees the wisdom of supporting a health care bill after having had an opportunity, her and others, to offer amendments," said Reid.
His office declined to provide a summary of the legislation, which could be made public as soon as Tuesday, but the senator himself said it would give states until 2014 to opt out of the public option.
Reid had been working with key senators and the White House to blend rival health care bills approved by the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Source: AFP

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