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Pelosi: New health care bill is an 'historic moment'

October 29, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) -- After months of struggle, House Democrats rolled out sweeping legislation Thursday to extend health care coverage to millions who lack it and create a new option of government-run insurance. A vote is likely next week on the plan largely tailored to President Barack Obama's liking.

Speaking on the steps of the Capitol, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress was at a "historic moment" with lawmakers "on the cusp of delivering on the promise of making affordable, quality health insurance available to every American."

Officials said the measure, once fully phased-in over several years, would extend coverage to 96 percent of Americans. Its principal mechanism for universal coverage is creation of a new government-regulated insurance "exchange" where private companies would sell policies in competition with the government. Federal subsidies would be available to millions of lower-income individuals and families to help them afford the policies, and to small businesses as an incentive to offer coverage to their workers.

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Large firms would be required to cover workers, and most individuals would be required to carry insurance.

The ceremony marked a pivotal moment in the Democrats' yearlong attempt to answer Obama's call for legislation to remake the nation's health care system by extending insurance, ending industry practices such as denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions, and slowing the growth of medical spending nationwide.

Across the Capitol, Senate Democrats, too, are hoping to pass legislation by year's end. Legislation outlined by Majority Leader Harry Reid earlier this week would include an option for a government-run plan, although states could drop out if they wished, a provision not in the House measure.

Obama issued a statement saying House Democrats had reached a "critical milestone" on the road toward a health care overhaul, and singled out the proposed government insurance option. He also said the bill "clearly meets two of the fundamental criteria I have set out: It is fully paid for and will reduce the deficit in the long term."

Republican reaction was swift and critical.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., head of the Republican Study Committee, issued a statement saying Democrats had produced a "government takeover that will limit choice, competition and innovation in health care while increasing costs and decreasing quality." He said the measure would kill jobs, raise taxes and inflict cuts on a program of private Medicare that provides benefits to millions of seniors.

GOP leaders long ago decided to oppose the approach requested by Obama and taken by Democrats, and health care is expected to figure in next year's congressional election campaigns.

Democrats issued a statement saying their 1,990-page measure "lowers costs for every patient" and would not add to federal deficits. They put the cost of coverage at under $900 billion over 10 years, a total that excludes several items designed to improve benefits for Medicare and Medicaid recipients and providers, as well as public health programs and more.

With Republicans expected to oppose the measure unanimously, Pelosi and her lieutenants worked for weeks to resolve differences within the Democratic rank and file.

The toughest of them covered the terms under which the government insurance option would function. Liberals generally wanted the government to dictate the rates to be paid to doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, with the fee levels linked to Medicare.

Moderates, fearing the impact on their local hospitals, held out for negotiated rates between the government and private insurers -- and won.

Not all liberals were ready to sign on. "My inclination is not to support it," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but that represented a softening of his opposition.

Grijalva acknowledged there was an argument for progressives to vote "yes." "The logic is to keep the ball rolling," Grijalva said Thursday.

Democrats control 256 seats in the House, are overwhelmingly favored to win one special election next week and are competitive for another. As a result, they can afford more than 30 defections on the legislation and still prevail.

House Democrats' campaign arm wasted no time in using the bill release as a fundraising opportunity. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee e-mailed supporters asking them to help raise $50,000 by Thursday night "so we have the resources to fight back against Republican attacks and prove that grassroots Democrats are standing strong behind health insurance reform with a strong public option."

The legislation would be financed by a combination of cuts in planned Medicare spending and an income tax surcharge of 5.4 percent on individuals making at least $500,000 annually and couples making at least $1 million.

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