Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have unveiled their version of health care reform legislation, in an effort to accelerate progress toward meeting achieving one of President Obama's major priorities. Republicans immediately blasted the proposal, which Democrats say they're determined to have the House vote on before the August congressional recess.
The effort by majority Democrats to reform the health care system, a goal President Barack Obama says is crucial to speeding economic recovery, ran into problems because of huge initial cost estimates, and the prospect of higher taxes to pay for the changes.
The president has pledged that health care reform would be fully paid for and not add to the federal budget deficit, the growth of which experts agree also threatens long-term recovery.
But a proposal by majority Democrats to pay for it by increasing taxes on high wage earners (couples earning more than $350,000) and wealthy Americans recently provoked opposition from fiscally-conservative Democrats.
Amid worries that disagreements might destroy chances of House and Senate votes before an August congressional recess, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leaders worked out a final version they vow to bring to a vote before lawmakers leave town.
Pelosi called the measure a historic step of major importance for America's middle class, but also described as a starting point:
"This bill is a starting point and a path to success, to lower costs for consumers and businesses, to give greater choice to Americans including keeping your doctor and plan if you like them, better quality of care putting doctors not insurance companies back in charge, and to provide stability and peace of mind that you cannot be denied care of coverage for a pre-existing [medical] condition," said Nancy Pelosi.
The measure includes a new government-run insurance plan, known as a public option to compete with private providers. Provisions aim to slow rapidly-increasing medical care costs, and improve access to and the quality and effectiveness of care and treatments.
Democratic Henry Waxman chairs the House Energy & Commerce Committee:
"The [current] system is unsustainable," said Henry Waxman. "We cannot continue to put more and more money into health care, especially when you recognize that this country spends more money on health care than any other western industrialized nation, and yet we have 46 to 50 million people uninsured."
Representative George Miller, a California Democrat, said the Democratic-controlled Congress will deliver on a goal set by President Obama when he was elected:
"We will in this year produce a bill that is fair and fully paid for, reduces cost, preserves choice, and expands access for all Americans," said George Miller. "That was the charge that President Obama gave this Congress when he was sworn into office, it was the charge that the American people gave President Obama when they voted for him in the election."
Currently, between 46 million and 50 million Americans are without health insurance. A report earlier this year found that one out of three Americans under the age of 65 were without health insurance at some point over the past two years.
As for the sensitive question of costs, lawmakers were more guarded, declining to specify a figure before the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides its estimate. However, it is thought to be around $1 trillion.
Republicans immediately responded, attacking the proposed surtax on high-earning Americans as another burden on small businesses, and asserting that the government insurance plan will ruin the existing private medical system:
Missouri Republican Roy Blunt:
"What we really have here is a bill that without any question will kill jobs, will limit access to health care, will raise taxes, and will lead to a government takeover of health care," said Roy Blunt.
Democrats will fine tune the measure over the next three weeks to, among other things, address ongoing concerns of fiscally-conservative Democrats, a group known as the Blue Dogs who want assurances that cost-cutting measures will be effective.
In a statement, the group said it is committed to passing health care reform, but said any plan that fails to meet President Obama's goal of substantially bringing down costs is not an option.
The Senate has made slower progress coming up with a health care reform bill. Achieving House and Senate votes before August would allow lawmakers to resolve differences on separate bills so each chamber could vote on a final version after they return from their break.