Health Care

Obama: Health Bill Will Make History

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In an early Christmas Eve vote, the Senate approved a landmark health care overhaul bill. The Democrats got all the votes they need to pass the measure. Not one Republican voted for the bill. In an NPR interview Wednesday, Obama explained to Julie Rovner why the measure will be historic.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate this morning approved its landmark health overhaul bill, with all the Democrats and none of the Republicans voting for it. The moment came after much wrangling, which ended with a Senate vote on Christmas Eve for the first time since 1895. Just before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chided Republicans for making the bill what he called too much about politics.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): This present's about people. It's about life and death in America. It's a question of morality, of right and wrong. It's about human suffering. And given the chance to relieve this suffering, we must take this chance and deliver on a promise the American people have deserved for six-and-a-half decades.

MONTAGNE: President Obama said the bill will make history. He told us why yesterday in an interview with NPR. Health policy correspondent Julie Rovner was there at the White House, and joins us now in the studio. Good morning.

JULIE ROVNER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with that Senate vote. The Democrats were smiling, hugging, praising each other right after the vote. But they still got to blend their bill with the one passed in the House last month.

ROVNER: That's right. It's always, you know, happy when you get your bill through the Senate, but it's not the end of the process. And, you know, the Senate bill and the House bill have a lot in common, but there's some pretty important differences. It's not going to be that easy to work them out. The House bill, of course, includes that so-called public option, the government-sponsored health plan that would compete with private insurance plans. The Senate bill doesn't have that. The House and Senate bills have very different language on abortion, although both versions are opposed by abortion rights groups. And the two bills are financed in different ways. The House wants to tax wealthy individuals. The Senate wants to tax health care providers, as well as insurance plans that provide very generous benefits.

MONTAGNE: Now, in your sit-down interview with President Obama, what did he say he wanted in the final House/Senate compromise?

ROVNER: Well, he talked about some things, particularly, he talked about how he would like to pay for it. Here's what he said about the Senate's proposal to tax those generous insurance plans, known as Cadillac health plans.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm on record as saying that taxing Cadillac plans that don't make people healthier but just take more money out of their pockets because they're paying more for insurance than they need to, that's actually a good idea, and that helps bend the cost curve. That helps to reduce the cost of health care over the long term. I think that's a smart thing to do.

ROVNER: Now, that's pretty controversial, because while that tax is strongly supported by health economists, it is vehemently opposed by labor unions who are a major part of the Democrats' base, but who also tend to have those Cadillac health plans.

MONTAGNE: And did the president say about a big Republican criticism that the bill has many of the taxes starting right away, but the benefits won't come along for years?

ROVNER: Well, you know, that is, of course, the - pretty much the biggest Republican criticism. But, of course, like the Democrats in the Senate, Mr. Obama was ready with a long list of the benefits that do begin sooner, things like letting young adults stay on their parents' health insurance plans until they're 26, the closing of the so-called donut hole in the Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors and stopping some insurance industry abuses like canceling peoples' policies after they get sick and start making claims.

MONTAGNE: Now, it's not just the Republicans complaining. Complaints also coming about this bill from the left.

ROVNER: That's right, particularly those who are unhappy at the Senate's loss of that public option. Actually, the president addressed those complaints without even having to be prompted.

Pres. OBAMA: This notion - I know among some on the left - that somehow this bill is not everything that it should be, that we still need a single-payer plan, etc., etc., I think just ignores the real human reality that this will help millions of people and end up being the most significant piece of domestic legislation at least since Medicare and maybe since Social Security.

ROVNER: You know, the president likes to say that this bill will make history. Republicans have been saying that Democrats who vote for it will be history come the next election.

MONTAGNE: Julie, thanks very much.

ROVNER: You're very welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner.

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