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US health reform clears first hurdle

Published on 14/10/09 at 12:11pm

The US Senate has approved the bill to reform America's health care system, raising hopes that it can become law next year.

The legislation was drafted after weeks of frequently bitter debate, with opinion divided about just what kind of reform US healthcare needs, how much it should cost and how big a role the government should play.

The bill approved by the Senate committee sets out a 10-year $829 billion (£525bn) plan to cut health costs and provide affordable health insurance, but does not guarantee insurance coverage for all citizens.

Universal coverage has been a core component of President Barack Obama's vision for health reform, but he nevertheless welcomed the bill's progress calling it a 'critical milestone'.

"We are closer than ever before to passing healthcare reform but we are not there yet," he said. "Now is not the time to pat ourselves on the back ... it is time to dig in further and get this done."

The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Democrat Max Baucus voted by 14 votes to nine to pass the bill, with one Republican joining Democrats in voting in favour.

Senator Snowe commented on her decision to vote in favour of the bill saying: "When history calls, history calls."

However, Snowe said she would not necessarily support later versions of a bill, predicting that there were "many, many miles to go in this legislative journey", which could alter the character of the bill.

The bill was passed despite the opposition of some leading Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the committee, criticised the legislation and predicted that the bill would move 'leftward' in its passage through Congress.

"This bill is already moving on a slippery slope to more government control of healthcare," he said.

The Finance Committee's bill must now be combined with a bill drafted by the Senate Health Committee before going before the full Senate for approval.

It requires the votes of all Democrats, two independents and one Republican in order to be made law, and a great deal of heated debate and ultimately compromise, is expected if it is to be passed.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently concluded that the Finance Committee's bill would cut the federal deficit by $81 billion and would result in around 94% of eligible Americans gaining insurance coverage. This would represent a triumph for President Obama, who is trying to tackle the figure of 20% of under 65s who have no health insurance coverage.

The health insurance industry has criticised the bill, forecasting that it will raise health insurance costs, but the Whitehouse has dismissed its calculations as misleading and biased.

Pharma industry backs the bill

The US pharma industry, meanwhile, has welcomed the bill's progress.

A spokesman for PhRMA said: "Today's vote represents an important step forward for the millions of Americans who don't have access to high-quality and affordable health care coverage and services. Chairman Baucus has tirelessly shepherded one of the most important pieces of legislation in our lifetime and deserves a lot of credit for reaching out to members on both sides of the aisle.

"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 health care reform, and we are going to do our part to try and get a bill on the President's desk this year."

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