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Senate Health Committee Approves Reform Bill Along Party Lines

Janice Simmons, for HealthLeaders Media, July 16, 2009

In a 13-10 vote along party lines, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday became the first committee to approve a marked up healthcare reform bill. The bill, called the "Affordable Health Choices Act," is expected to be merged with the Senate Finance Committee's bill, which is not completed.

More than 500 amendments were considered, and of those, about 160 Republican amendments were accepted, said Sen. Chris Dodd (D CT), who chaired the committee in the absence of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D MA), who is recovering from a brain tumor. "Although it wasn't a bipartisan vote, it was a bipartisan effort that produced this bill."

Adding to that thought, President Obama—meeting with nurses at the White House Wednesday afternoon—said that the work of both parties in the committee over several weeks, despite the final vote, "showed a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product, if people are serious about bipartisanship."

The bill does have a health insurance exchange, referred to in the bill an "Affordable Health Benefit Gateway," that states would be responsible for establishing. It also includes a government-run, public health insurance option that Dodd said would compete with private insurers to drive costs down.

Under the "shared responsibility" section, all individuals would be required to obtain healthcare coverage, although some exceptions could be made for those who cannot afford coverage. Employers with 25 or fewer employers also would be exempt from penalties. The bill's minimum penalty to accomplish the goal of "enhancing participation" is $750 per individual annually.

The bill also has a greater focus on prevention and wellness efforts than the House bill introduced Tuesday. The bill puts "prevention and public health at the heart" of reform, said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), a committee member. "It replaces our current sick care system with a genuine health care system."

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