Saying it was "time to get this done," President Barack Obama pressed on Wednesday for swift congressional action on healthcare after a Senate panel approved a bill to overhaul the $2.5 trillion industry.
Panels led by his Democratic Party have stepped up activity on legislation that would meet Obama's goal of guaranteeing all Americans healthcare coverage, but they remain far from resolving the thorniest issue -- how to come up with about $1 trillion over 10 years in new taxes or savings to pay for it.
The first of five congressional panels to act, the Senate Health Committee approved legislation by a 13-10 vote that would set up a government-run insurance program to compete with private insurers. No Republicans voted for the measure.
The vote came a day after House Democratic leaders introduced a sweeping healthcare reform bill that included a government insurance option and is partially paid for with a planned tax on the wealthy. It would require employers to offer health coverage or pay into a government fund.
Obama praised the Senate panel's action, but appealed to Americans to get involved, saying at the White House, "It's time for us to buck up Congress, this administration, the entire federal government, to be clear that we've got to get this done."
The full Senate must vote on healthcare legislation and reconcile its bill with the House proposal before it goes to the White House.
Health insurance reform is considered central to Obama's administration, building on his campaign pledge to expand coverage and control skyrocketing medical expenses, which are a burden on the federal government, businesses and individuals.
The Senate bill would require most Americans to obtain health insurance and require employers of more than 25 workers to provide coverage or face a $750-per-worker penalty. Insurers could no longer bar people with pre-existing conditions. But, no one with insurance would be required to change insurers.
In a renewed push for Congress to complete work on healthcare reform before it recesses in August, Obama met with four Republican senators at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. They discussed ways the healthcare delivery system could be reformed to eliminate waste and lower costs while improving the quality of care.
They agreed it was a top priority to fix what is broken in the healthcare system, while building on what works, an administration official said.
In a series of network television interviews on healthcare, Obama said he now supported a requirement that all Americans have health insurance.
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"I'm now in favor of some sort of individual mandate as long as there's a hardship exemption," Obama told the "CBS Evening News," saying he had changed his mind since his statements during the presidential campaign opposing a mandate. [nN15375456]
Most Americans have health insurance that is partially paid by their employers, but an estimated 46 million have no coverage.
The National Federation of Independent Business, which worked to derail President Bill Clinton's reform push in the early 1990s, warned lawmakers the House bill would harm U.S. jobs and that it failed to meaningfully curb costs.
The trade group for small businesses called the employer mandate "punitive" and the tax "regressive" because it hits employers whether they have made a profit or not.
The senior Republican on the Senate health panel, Senator Mike Enzi, called the Senate bill "a prescription for failure," and complained Republicans were shut out of the drafting process.
"If America is going to believe in what we do, this cannot be a bill just put together by one side."
Senators were cool to one of the most controversial parts of the House Democrats' bill, the so-called millionaires' tax on the wealthiest Americans to pay for the expanded coverage. The tax starts at 1 percent on income of $350,000 a year and hits 5.4 percent for millionaires.
The second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Richard Durbin, said the Senate would not follow the House lead on taxes.
"Their (House) revenue sources will be different from ours. We have a different political mix here. We're trying to put together 60 votes; a majority that will pass," he said.
The Senate health panel's version costs about $615 billion over 10 years, but does not include changes to expand coverage for the elderly and poor.
Three House panels are to start work this week on the House plan. The Senate finance panel was expected to begin debate soon, but a senior Republican said he doubted it would act this week or next.
"They tell me they are making progress," said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who is among a small group of lawmakers working with committee chairman Max Baucus on the effort. Asked if legislation could emerge this week or next, he said, "I personally doubt it."
Source: China Daily/Agencies