Congress clears historic health care bill

By | March 21, 2010 at 10:04 PM

WASHINGTON — Summoned to success by  President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled Congress approved historic legislation Sunday night extending health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and cracking down on insurance company abuses, a climactic chapter in the century-long quest for near universal coverage.

Widely viewed as dead two months ago, the Senate-passed bill cleared the House on a 219-212 vote, with Republicans unanimous in opposition.

Congressional officials said they expected Obama to sign the bill as early as Tuesday.

A second measure – making changes in the first – was lined up for passage later in the evening. It would then go to the Senate, where Democratic leaders said they had the votes to pass it.

Crowds of protesters outside the Capitol shouted “just vote no” in a futile attempt to stop the inevitable taking place inside a House packed with lawmakers and ringed with spectators in the galleries above.

Across hours of debate, House Democrats predicted the major bill, costing $940 billion over a decade, would rank with other great social legislation of recent decades.

“We will be joining those who established  Social Security, Medicare and now, tonight, health care for all Americans, said  Speaker Nancy Pelosi, partner to Obama and  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the grueling campaign to pass the legislation.

“This is the  civil rights act  of the  21st century,” added  Rep. Jim Clyburn  of  South Carolina, the top-ranking black member of the House.

Republicans readily agreed the bill would affect everyone in America, but warned repeatedly of the burden imposed by more than $900 billion in tax increases and Medicare cuts combined.

“We have failed to listen to America,” said  Rep. John Boehner  of  Ohio, leader of a party that has vowed to carry the fight into the fall’s midterm elections for control of Congress.

The nonpartisan  Congressional Budget Office  said the legislation would extend coverage to 32 million Americans who lack it, ban insurers from denying coverage on the basis of  pre-existing medical conditionsand cut deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade. If realized, the expansion of coverage would include 95 percent of all eligible individuals under age 65.

Far beyond the political ramifications – a concern the president repeatedly insisted he paid no mind – were the sweeping changes the bill held in store for millions of individuals, the insurance companies that would come under tougher control and the  health care providers, many of whom would face higher taxes.

For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refused. Much of the money in the bill would be devoted to subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year pay their premiums.

The measure would also usher in a significant expansion of Medicaid, the  federal-state health care  program for the poor. Coverage would be required for incomes up to 133 percent of the  federal poverty level, $29,327 a year for a family of four. Childless adults would be covered for the first time, starting in 2014.

The insurance industry, which spent millions on advertising trying to block the bill, would come under new federal regulation. They would be forbidden from placing lifetime dollar limits on policies, from denying coverage to children because of  pre-existing conditions  and from canceling policies when a policyholder becomes ill.

Parents would be able to keep children up to age 26 on their family insurance plans, three years longer than is now the case.

A new high-risk pool would offer coverage to uninsured people with medical problems until 2014, when the coverage expansion would go into high gear.

The final obstacle to passage was cleared a few hours before the vote, when Obama and Democratic leaders reached a compromise with anti-abortion lawmakers whose rebellion had left the outcome in doubt. The president issued an executive order pledging that no federal funds would be used for elective abortion, satisfying  Rep. Bart Stupak  of  Michigan  and a handful of like-minded lawmakers.

A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed skepticism that the presidential order would satisfy the church’s objections.

For the president, the events capped an 18-day stretch in which he traveled to four states and lobbied more than 60 wavering lawmakers in person or by phone to secure passage of his signature  domestic issue. According to some who met with him, he warned that the bill’s demise could cripple his still-young presidency.

After more than a year of political combat, Democrats piled superlative upon superlative across several hours of House debate.

Rep. Louise Slaughter  of  New York  read a message  President Franklin Roosevelt  sent Congress in 1939 urging lawmakers to address the needs of those without health care, and said  Democrat Harry Truman  andRepublican Richard Nixon  had also sought to broaden insurance coverage.

Republicans attacked the bill without let-up, warning it would harm the economy while mandating a government takeover of the  health care system.

“The American people  know you can’t reduce  health care costs  by spending $1 trillion or raising taxes by more than one-half trillion dollars. The American people know that you cannot cut Medicare by over one-half trillion dollars without hurting seniors,” said  Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.

“And, the  American people  know that you can’t create an entirely new government  entitlement programwithout exploding spending and the deficit.”

Obama has said often that presidents of both parties have tried without success to achieve  national health insurance, beginning with  Theodore Roosevelt  early in the  20th century.

The  44th president’s quest to succeed where others have failed seemed at a dead end two months ago, when Republicans won a special election for a  Massachusetts Senate seat, and with it, the votes to prevent a final vote.

But the  White House, Pelosi and Reid soon came up with a rescue plan that required the House to approve the Senate-passed measure despite opposition to many of its provisions, then have both houses pass a fix-it measure incorporating numerous changes.

To pay for the changes, the legislation includes more than $400 billion in higher taxes over a decade, roughly half of it from a new Medicare  payroll tax  on individuals with incomes over $200,000 and couples over $250,000. A new excise tax on high-cost insurance policies was significantly scaled back in deference to complaints from organized labor.

In addition, the bills cut more than $500 billion from planned payments to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other providers that treat Medicare patients. An estimated $200 billion would reduce planned subsidies to insurance companies that offer a private alternative to traditional Medicare.

The insurance industry warned that seniors would face sharply higher premiums as a result, and the Congressional Budget Office  said many would return to traditional Medicare as a result.

The subsidies are higher than those for seniors on traditional Medicare, a difference that critics complain is wasteful, but insurance industry officials argue goes into expanded benefits.

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