Health Reform Package Continues to Advance

Some experts support the Senate bill, which could be approved by Christmas, but others have misgivings

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By Karen Pallarito
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Dec. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Prominent health-care experts are throwing their support behind the Senate version of the health reform package, which now looks like it will be passed before Christmas since Senate Democrats have garnered the 60 votes needed to move the bill forward.

"Overall, it is a multi-dimensional attack on the problems of our health-care system," said Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, and includes all of the essential elements for achieving the goals of ensuring access to care, making coverage more affordable and slowing the growth of health-care costs.

The 10-year, $871 billion health reform package won't make its way to the White House until early next year, after House and Senate negotiators huddle to iron out differences between their respective bills. Assuming they reach an agreement, each chamber must vote on a compromise version. If the House and Senate pass the measure, then it will go to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The American Medical Association on Monday announced its support of the Senate bill.

"All Americans deserve affordable, high-quality health coverage so they can get the medical care they need -- and this bill advances many of our priority issues for achieving the vision of a health system that works for patients and physicians," AMA President-elect Dr. Cecil B. Wilson said in a statement.

The bill expands health insurance coverage to more than 94 percent of Americans under age 65, including 31 million uninsured, and provides tax credits to help low-income individuals and families pay for coverage. Exclusions on pre-existing conditions would be a thing of the past.

While Obama remains steadfast in his drive for health reform, the latest polling data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that the American public's outlook soured somewhat in December. Fifty-four percent of Americans now support health reform, while 41 percent say the nation cannot afford to take on health reform now. Those percentages mirror the spread in August, when angry citizens lambasted members of Congress at town hall debates across the country.

Thirty-five percent of Americans in December said they would be better off if Congress passes health reform, down 7 percentage points from November. The percentage who said they'd be worse off rose 3 points to 27 percent.

The bill requires most people, with some limited exceptions, to have health insurance coverage. Those who don't buy coverage that meets federal standards would pay a fine of $95 in 2014. That fine would rise to $750 in 2016.

One policy expert who touts free-market ideas in health care said the Senate bill, with its threat of fines and other penalties, bodes ill for consumers.

"It's all about devolving power and control over health care -- one-sixth of our economy -- to Washington," said Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Galen Institute, a non-profit public policy research organization that say it's devoted to advancing free-market ideas in health policy.

The Senate version does not include a so-called public health option. But it does allow the federal Office of Personnel Management to negotiate with private health plans to offer coverage to the uninsured.

AARP, an advocate of the Senate measure, said the bill would strengthen Medicare for beneficiaries.

"The thing that's probably most important over time is it saves them a lot of money," said John Rother, executive vice president of the AARP. Seniors will save money on premiums and out-of-pocket costs, he said, adding, "It also saves them money by making preventive services free."

Still, there's some unfinished business as far as seniors are concerned.

"The most obvious thing for us is it does not finish the job of closing the 'doughnut hole' in the Medicare drug benefit and, of course, we have commitments from the Majority Leader and senior members to do so in the conference with the House," Rother said.

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