Democrats plan to fast-track final health care bill

Tactic designed to stymie GOP opposition

By David Espo and Erica Werner
Associated Press / January 5, 2010

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WASHINGTON - To try to speed final passage and get the bill to President Obama’s desk, House and Senate Democrats intend to bypass traditional procedures when they negotiate a final compromise on health care legislation, officials said yesterday, a move that will exclude Republican lawmakers who have vowed to block the bill.

Usually, a House-Senate conference committee would try to reconcile hundreds of differences between the bills passed by each chamber. The biggest dispute is over a government-run insurance option - the House wants one, but the Senate bill omitted it - as well as the size and extent of federal subsidies to help lower-income families afford coverage.

Instead, Democratic aides said the final compromise talks would essentially be a three-way negotiation involving top Democrats in the House and Senate and the White House, a structure that gives unusual latitude to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

Bypassing a formal conference committee enables Democrats to omit time-consuming procedural steps in the Senate and prevents Republicans from trying to delay the final negotiations.

The unofficial timetable calls for passage by the time Obama delivers his State of the Union address, probably in early February. The plan is to skip the formal meetings, reach an agreement, then have the two houses vote as quickly as possible. A 60-vote Senate majority would be required in advance of final passage.

“We hope to get a bill done as soon as possible,’’ said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid.

At the same time, a new federal analysis found that the recession dramatically slowed health care spending to $2.3 trillion in 2008, but it still grew much faster than the economy as a whole, accounting for more than 16 percent of the nation’s economic output. It was still an eye-popping $7,681 per person.

The president has repeatedly cited spiraling health costs as one of the main reasons Congress needs to pass his health plan, and administration officials said the findings highlighted the need for quick action.

“This report contains some welcome news and yet another warning sign,’’ said Jonathan Blum, a top official at the government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “It is clear that we need health insurance reform now.’’

However, health care analysts question whether there are significant cost-containment measures in either bill - and Republicans insist there aren’t.

“I agree we need reform, but both the House and Senate Democrat bills make the problem worse by increasing the cost of health care,’’ said Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. “They spend $1 trillion we don’t have and bend the curve the wrong way.’’

Republicans cited earlier analyses by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid that found the sweeping overhaul legislation that seeks to extend coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans over the next decade would lead to increased health care costs. Democrats counter that the bills begin to slow cost increases over time.

However, some cost-saving measures Democrats proposed were blocked or turned into pilot projects after lobbying by doctors, hospitals, or other interest groups.

One major attempt to bring down health costs is a tax on high-value insurance plans included in the Senate bill but opposed in the House; it’s likely to survive in some form though exactly how remains to be seen.