Congress set to tackle health care reform

It’s go time for President Barack Obama’s promise to enact a sweeping health care overhaul this year.

First up as Congress returns from a weeklong recess: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, partially sidelined by cancer, is convening his health committee’s Democrats on Tuesday to begin weighing his proposals to extend health care to all.

Later in the week, the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee meets behind closed doors to work on legislation to achieve the same goal.

"This is where the rubber finally meets the road," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Both committees are getting ready for what is expected to be one of the most important debates of this legislative session."

Meanwhile, health industry groups are expected Monday to deliver specific plans to the White House backing up their recent pledge to curb their own costs by $2 trillion over 10 years.

They made the promise at a high-profile White House photo-op with Obama, but the details were scant. Now comes the time to deliver.

The groups of health insurers, doctors, hospitals and others are expected to produce a slate of cost-saving proposals, such as reducing hospital readmission rates, improving coordination of care, focusing on prevention and cutting administrative expenses.

It all comes as Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate return from a Memorial Day break that many spent hearing from constituents about health care — and getting bombarded by an ever-growing number of television and radio ads from critics and supporters of Obama’s plans.

House Democrats alone held 120 different health care-related events last week, said Stephanie Lundberg, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. She said House leaders would meet this week to work on their plans.

Obama used the Memorial Day week to get his campaign volunteers behind his health care goals. He held a conference call with supporters to urge them to demand action from their lawmakers and get them on-board for a national health care campaign kickoff set for Saturday.

Leaders of progressive groups, including Howard Dean of Democracy for America, scheduled a news conference for Monday to unveil their plans for supporting the president’s goals.

Obama is promising a plan that ensures choice, reduces costs and covers the 50 million Americans now without insurance.

Kennedy would achieve those goals by requiring all individuals to buy insurance, creating a new public insurance plan that would compete with private insurers to cover middle-class Americans, and providing subsidies to people with income up to four times the poverty level to help them buy care, according to an internal committee briefing paper.

He also would bar health insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and would create a new voluntary nationwide insurance program, funded by payroll deductions, for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

The briefing paper doesn’t specify how the overall plan would be paid for _costs for achieving universal coverage are estimated as high as $1.5 trillion — but says the responsibility must be shared. Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley said the proposals in the briefing paper weren’t final.

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