WASHINGTON (CN) – Sweeping health care legislation is quickly making its way through Congress, without Republican support. Over the course of 24 hours, three of the five committees charged with working on health-care reform have passed legislation, with the House Committee on Education and Labor approving a health care bill 26-22 Friday.
“We will reform health care. It will happen this year,” President Barack Obama said in a speech Friday that supported fast passage of reform legislation.
Just hours earlier, the House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill 23-18, and on Thursday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions passed the legislation 13-10 with no republican support Thursday.
“I want to particularly applaud the efforts of the committees in the House and the Senate who have worked long and hard to make this progress,” Obama said. But he added, “I realize that the last few miles of any race are the hardest to run, but I have to say now is not the time to slow down, and now is certainly not the time to lose heart.”
The Senate Finance Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee are the last stops before a conference committee is held, where the differences between House and Senate legislation will be addressed. After that, the agreed upon bill will be put to a vote on the House and Senate floors.
“There’s still a lot of debating to go,” Deborah Weinstein from the Coalition on Human Needs, an independent think tank, noted during a phone interview.
Proponents hope the legislation will make health care available to all Americans. It offers a public plan designed to compete with private insurers and requires employers to cover their workers. They say it will reduce the growing cost of health care.
“Our proposal would change incentives so that providers will give patients the best care, not just the most expensive care,” Obama exclaimed, “which will mean big savings over time.”
Critics of the legislation have expressed concern over funding, negative effects on small businesses, and over the government plan intended to compete against private insurers. Many have said a public plan would reduce the pay of doctors and hospitals in negotiating low rates.
Weinstein expressed her support for the legislation, and said 30 percent of the money Americans spend on health care “doesn’t make patients healthier.” She predicted legislation before Congress will change industry incentives to better direct this money. “We have to start to turn this ship around,” she remarked, but admitted that the efforts in the bill to control costs “need more work.”
Despite low approval from Republicans, Weinstein argued that it’s important to pass a bipartisan bill. “That will make it sustainable,” she said.
The Senate Finance Committee shares jurisdiction with the Senate health committee over health-care reform, and is responsible for determining how such reform would be funded.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee marked up the legislation Friday, adding several amendments before it adjourned for the weekend. The committee is expected to finish its mark up next week.
The committee unanimously agreed to an amendment introduced by California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman that would put returning military medics on the fast track to become Emergency Medical Technicians. Harman said returning veterans have 30 percent unemployment and “invaluable experience.” It makes “no sense,” she said, that military medics must start in square one if they want to become EMTs.
Republicans had their way when Oklahoma Republican John Sullivan’s amendment narrowly passed, clapping from their side of the room. It would have Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius review new programs in the health-care bill and eliminate those that are duplicative in an effort to save money.
“This amendment’s fairly simple,” said Texas Republican Ranking Member Joe Barton, expressing his surprise that more Democrats were not supportive, especially because it puts the power to cut programs in the hands of someone appointed by President Barack Obama.
“I don’t think we should give the secretary that kind of power, any secretary,” California Democrat Chairman Henry Waxman replied.
An amendment over euthanasia was also added to the health-care reform bill. Baldwin said her amendment would fund public awareness programs about euthanasia, so people make informed decisions. There was some confusion over what “what the devil it does,” in the words of Oregon Republican Greg Walden, but the committee was in a rush for floor votes and the amendment passed a hasty vote.
Republicans threw their support behind another amendment to place caps on doctor liability, but Waxman decided the language falls under the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction.
Republicans said the addition would save billions of dollars a year. The amendment, introduced by Burgess from Texas would reflect a law in Texas that has reduced the liability threat to doctors and hospitals to $250,000, making Texas, as Burgess said, a “magnet for doctors.”
The committee plans to continue marking up the bill on Monday.
“We are going to get this done,” Obama promised.