House, Senate Offer Health Care Plans

After months of closed-door meetings, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are finally unveiling some of the first details of their plans to remake the nation's health care system. And that's prompting still more debate.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Congress is beginning to give us some hints on how they want to change the health care system. President Obama says he wants big changes, more people should be insured and health care costs have to come way down.

MONTAGNE: The way Congress does that could affect almost every American. People without insurance might get it, people with insurance might get different treatment and extra taxes to handle the cost. More than a trillion dollars worth of those details are in the hands of lawmakers who've started offering clues to what they might do. NPR's Julie Rovner has been listening.

JULIE ROVNER: The activity began in the House where Democrats heard, for the first time, the outlines of a proposal being put together by the heads of the three committees that oversee health care. New York Democrat Charlie Rangel, who heads the Tax Writing Ways and Means Committee, immediately made news. He backed off at least a little from rejecting the idea of taxing health benefits as a way to pay the bill's estimated one and half trillion dollar cost.

Representative CHARLIE RANGEL (Democrat, New York): Everything is on the table. There is nothing, no matter how stupid it sounds, that I'm rejecting.

ROVNER: Rangel also said that the plan House leaders were putting together would definitely include a so-called public option that would be a government sponsored not-for-profit insurance plan that people could opt for instead of private coverage. Some conservative Democrats had suggested having a public insurance plan only as a fallback, creating it only if private plans fail to contain cost or there wasn't enough competition but Rangel said no.

Rep. RANGEL: We got to have a public plan and we're not going to wait two, three, five years to see what happens and then trigger it, we got to have a plan.

ROVNER: Over in the Senate, a government-sponsored public plan is also part of the bill formally unveiled by Democrats on Senator Ted Kennedy's Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee. Like the emerging house bill, Kennedy's bill would require almost everyone to have health insurance and most larger businesses to help pay the cost. The government would provide generous subsidies to help people pay premiums in both proposals. Meanwhile Max Baucus, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said his panel too will probably back a public plan.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana, Chairman Senate Finance Committee): I think some version of the public plan will pass the committee and the Senate. I don't know, I can't say what version.

ROVNER: But all that apparent togetherness on the part of Democrats is serving only to unite the opposition, says Jon Kyl, the Senate's second ranking Republican.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): We are opposed to a government plan and the sooner it's off the table the better.

ROVNER: Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said no matter how a government plan is structured, it simply can't compete fairly with private health insurance.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): The idea of a government-run health care plan is a big problem for us, and it's a big problem because it leads inevitably to a Washington takeover of health care.

ROVNER: Republicans may not have the votes to stop a public plan from being included in a health overhaul bill, or to stop the bill itself for that matter, but Democrats still have plenty of divisions amongst themselves. The first actual legislating is set for Kennedy's committee next week.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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