Kennedy Readies Health-Care Bill

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has laid down the first marker in this year's debate over how to revamp the nation's health-care system, writing a bill that would put strict new requirements on individuals and businesses to purchase insurance.

As expected, the ailing chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and his staff have crafted comprehensive legislation that would guarantee health coverage for every American -- but would require the vast majority to contribute to the cost, according to a draft of the bill obtained last night by The Washington Post. Some small businesses and low-income workers would be eligible for subsidies.

While at least five congressional chairmen are working on health-care reform bills, Kennedy is the first to complete detailed legislative language. The draft provides a partial road map for how the nation might address health coverage gaps and problems such as rising costs and inferior quality.

The 170-page bill, dubbed the "American Health Choices Act," does not include cost estimates or specifics on how to pay for the expansion.

Perhaps its most controversial element is the creation of a new government-sponsored health insurance plan that would compete with private insurers. Republicans and industry groups have opposed the so-called "public option," arguing it would undermine the private marketplace and could lead to a "single-payer" system. President Obama reiterated his support for the public option earlier this week.

Under the approach crafted by the Kennedy staff, doctors and hospitals serving patients in the new public insurance plan would be paid 10 percent above current Medicare rates. The bill suggests the costs of the program would be covered through premiums.

"This is a draft of a draft," Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley said. Committee Democrats, he said, "are still discussing legislative options among themselves and Republican colleagues."

He did not dispute the contents of the document, which closely tracks with summaries circulated by the Kennedy team last week.

Much of the bill is modeled after sweeping state health-care reform enacted three years ago in Massachusetts. In addition to the requirements on businesses and individuals, the bill would create new insurance exchanges, called "connectors," that would essentially enable individuals to shop for insurance. Kennedy would allow families earning up to 500 percent of the poverty level -- $110,000 -- to buy insurance on a sliding scale with government subsidies.

A markup of the bill by Kennedy's committee is tentatively set for June 16. The Senate Finance Committee hopes to release its proposal June 17 and begin markup on June 22.

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