House Democratic leaders, pledging to meet the president’s goal of health care legislation before their August break, are offering a US$1.5 trillion plan that for the first time would make health care a right and a responsibility for all Americans. Left to pick up most of the tab were medical providers, employers and the wealthy.
“We cannot allow this issue to be delayed. We cannot put it off again,” Representative Henry Waxman of California, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, said on Tuesday. “We, quite frankly, cannot go home for a recess unless the House and the Senate both pass bills to reform and restructure our health care system.”
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wanted floor debate to begin a week from Monday. With the Senate Finance Committee still struggling to reach consensus, that timetable could slip. Even so, it underscored a renewed sense of urgency.
US President Barack Obama himself was driving the action, going off-script to push the issue during a speech in Michigan and scheduling a Rose Garden news conference for yesterday to make more comments on the topic.
“There’s going to be a major debate over the next three weeks,” Obama said in Warren, Michigan, deviating from his prepared text on new spending for community colleges. “And don’t be fooled by folks trying to scare you, saying we can’t change the health care system.”
“We have no choice but to change the health care system because right now it’s broken for too many Americans,” he said.
All involved were mindful of the dwindling days before Congress leaves town. Obama wants legislation through the House and Senate before then to slow rising costs and extend coverage to some 50 million uninsured Americans.
Under the House Democrats’ plan, the federal government would be responsible for ensuring that every person, regardless of income or the state of their health, has access to an affordable insurance plan. Individuals and employers would have new obligations to get coverage, or face hefty penalties.
The legislation calls for a 5.4 percent tax increase on individuals making more than US$1 million a year, with a gradual tax beginning at US$280,000 for individuals. Employers who don’t provide coverage would be hit with a penalty equal to 8 percent of workers’ wages, with an exemption for small businesses. Individuals who decline an offer of affordable coverage would pay 2.5 percent of their incomes as a penalty, up to the average cost of a health insurance plan.
The plan lacked figures on total costs, but a House Democratic aide said the total bill would add up to about US$1.5 trillion over 10 years. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity.
Three House committees will begin voting on the bill today.
The House bill seemed unlikely to win broad backing in the Senate, where the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was expected to finish its version of the legislation yesterday in what was looking to be a party-line vote.
The Finance Committee was striving to produce a bill by the end of the week.