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Health bill to be Obama’s early Christmas present

WASHINGTON: Democrats in the US Senate have closed ranks in support of legislation to reform the nation’s healthcare system, overcoming months of internal division and clearing a path for quick Senate passage of President Barack Obama’s top domestic policy priority, possibly on Christmas Eve.The Senate leader, Harry Reid, secured the pivotal 60th vote after acceding to the demands of the Nebraska senator Ben Nelson for tighter restrictions on insurance coverage for abortions, money for his home state and breaks for favoured health-care interests.”Change is never easy, but change is what’s necessary in America,” Senator Nelson said in announcing his support.In remarks at the White House, Mr Obama said it appeared a vote was certain on a bill that would provide coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans.”After a nearly century-long struggle we are on the cusp of making health-care reform a reality.” Mr Obama had sent senior Administration officials to lock down Senator Nelson’s support.Republicans excoriated the Senate bill as a threat to Medicare and the employer system that provides health coverage to most Americans. Party leaders invoked a rarely used Senate rule to require that the entire 338-page package of amendments introduced by Senator Reid on Saturday be read aloud on the floor, consuming about seven hours on Saturday.”This bill is a monstrosity,” said the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. ”This is not renaming the post office. Make no mistake – this bill will reshape our nation and our lives.”But Republicans were running out of options in their quest to derail the bill. Unless the party yields, it is expected to pass in a final Senate vote at 7pm on Christmas Eve. Negotiations to merge it with the House of Representatives version would begin in early January.Its stark differences with the House plan, which includes a public option, would have to be reconciled in order to pass a final measure before Mr Obama’s state of the union speech in January.Securing Senator Nelson’s support allows the Democrats to manoeuvre the bill through a parliamentary minefield without obstruction. A 60-vote bloc prevents the filibuster, the Senate minority’s primary source of power, and the Republicans’ best hope of defeating the bill.Many liberals, however, were bitterly disappointed with the bargains struck to win support from moderates in his caucus. Democratic leaders dropped a government insurance option and the idea of expanding Medicare to younger Americans.The revised Senate bill would require every American for the first time to obtain insurance or face a penalty of as much as $US750 ($850) a year or 2 per cent of income, whichever is greater, with a cap for families set at $US2250. Those without access to affordable coverage through an employer would be eligible to apply for federal subsidies and shop for coverage in new state-based exchanges from 2014.Instead of a public option, the legislation would allow private firms to offer insurance across state lines on the state exchanges.Starting immediately, insurers would be barred from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. A total ban on the practice would take effect in 2014. Lifetime limits on coverage would be banned and annual limits would be restricted until 2014, when they, too, would be banned entirely.The Washington Post, Agence France-Presse
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