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Legislation gets clean bill of fiscal health

WASHINGTON – Congressional budget analysts gave an important political boost Wednesday to a Senate panel’s health care overhaul, projecting that the $829 billion measure would both dramatically shrink the ranks of the uninsured and keep President Barack Obama’s pledge that doing so would not add “one dime” to federal budget deficits.

With the report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the measure crafted by the Senate Finance Committee has emerged as the only one of five bills drafted by various committees that achieves every important goal Obama has set for his top domestic initiative.

White House budget director Peter Orszag applauded the analysis, saying the measure “demonstrates that we can expand coverage and improve quality while being fiscally responsible,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it “another important step down the road toward enacting comprehensive health insurance reform.” But senior Republicans seemed only to harden in their opposition to the measure.

The Finance Committee could vote as early as Friday on the bill. Passage by the Democrat-dominated panel is virtually assured, but Democrats are eager to win the vote of Sen. Olympia Snowe, of Maine, the only Republican on the committee who has expressed any support for the measure.

Snowe said Wednesday that she was relieved to see that the cost of expanding coverage remained below Obama’s limit of $900 billion over the next decade. “But we have a lot to review,” she said.

She urged committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to wait until next week for a final vote. “It’s a critical vote. … I would rather have the comfort level of having had sufficient time to analyze it.”

Other Republicans pored over the CBO’s 27-page report, then emerged with the warning that the Finance measure would impose a stiff price on those already with health insurance.

Sen. Charles Grassley, of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he was worried that insurers and other health care companies would pass the cost of new fees and taxes on to consumers. And he said the bill’s expansion of Medicaid would leave a new set of “unfunded mandates” for states already struggling with record budget deficits.

“There’s a lot of things in there to be concerned about,” Grassley said.

Reid hopes to combine the committee’s bill with a competing measure, approved by the Senate health committee, and present the result to the full Senate later this month.

According to the CBO, Congress’ official arbiter of the cost of legislation, the Finance measure would expand coverage to an additional 29 million Americans by 2019 by dramatically expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor and by subsidizing private insurance for low- and middle-income Americans.

The $829 billion price tag would be more than offset by reducing spending on Medicare and other federal health programs by about $400 billion over the next decade, and by imposing a series of fees on insurance companies, drug makers, medical device manufacturers and other sectors of the health industry that stand to gain millions of new customers under the legislation.

In addition, the package would raise another $200 billion by levying a 40 percent excise tax on high-cost insurance policies – the “Cadillac” plans that cost more than $8,000 for individuals or $21,000 for a family.

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