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Senate committee approves health reform bill

In a leap forward in the effort to overhaul the US healthcare system, the Senate Finance Committee has approved the America's Healthy Future Act

In a leap forward in the effort to overhaul the healthcare system, the Senate Finance Committee has approved the America's Healthy Future Act sponsored by committee chairman Max Baucus, the Democrat from Montana.

The bill even gained the support of one Republican on the committee, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, who said she went against her party because, although she views the bill as flawed, the status quo of the American health system is no longer tenable.

The Finance Committee was the last of five committees to complete the work of developing a legislative proposal for healthcare reform. The various bills will now move to the House and Senate floors, where they will need to have their significant differences ironed out so that they can be merged into a single, final proposal.

The Finance Committee's bill, which has the support of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), would allow people who want to keep their current health coverage to do so. Among dozens of other provisions aimed at covering all Americans, improving care and cutting costs, it would offer tax credits to low-income and middle-income families to help them buy insurance on the private market, and create a web-based "insurance exchange" to standardise health plan information and help make purchasing insurance easier. The legislation would also reform some of the practices of the health insurance industry, making it illegal, for example, for insurers to deny applicants coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

A recent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill will cost $829bn, but would reduce the federal budget deficit by $81bn within the first decade.

The committee voted 14 to 9 in favour of the bill, with all of the Republican members except Snowe voting against it. In a statement delivered to his colleagues before the vote, Senator Charles E Grassley of Iowa, the committee's ranking Republican, asserted that the bill would give the Federal government too much power over the healthcare system.

"It gives the secretary of Health and Human Services the power to define benefits for every private plan in America and to redefine those benefits annually.  That's a lot of power over people's lives," Grassley said.

PhRMA, however, issued a statement calling the committee's vote "an important step forward" and praising Baucus for his efforts in shepherding the bill towards approval. "We recognise that a lot of work remains in both chambers, but we're still convinced that the Senate Finance Committee's bipartisan bill is the best blueprint for comprehensive healthcare reform, and we are going to do our part to try and get a bill on the President's desk this year," PhRMA said.  

In Rose Garden remarks at the White House, President Obama acknowledged that the bill is "not perfect," but called the vote a "critical milestone" in the health reform effort.

"After many months of thoughtful deliberation, the fifth and final committee responsible for healthcare reform has passed a proposal that has both Democratic and Republican support," he said. "After the consideration of hundreds of amendments, it includes ideas from both Democrats and Republicans, which is why it enjoys the support of people from both parties."

"There are still significant details and disagreements to be worked out over the next several weeks as the five separate bills from the Senate and the House are merged into one proposal, but I do believe the work of the Senate Finance Committee has brought us significantly closer to achieving the core objectives I laid out early in September," the President said.

14th October 2009

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