LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Congress returned to Washington after its July 4th break this past week and went straight to work on its top agenda item: health care. Now, depending on which day or sometimes which hour you paid attention to the news, efforts to reach an agreement on a large-scale health overhaul bill were either going very well or very badly.
NPR's Julie Rovner is here to explain where things really stand. Hi, Julie.
JULIE ROVNER: Hi, Liane.
HANSEN: Prospects for an agreement got a boost this past week when Vice President Joe Biden announced a deal with hospitals to give up $150 billion to help pay for an overhaul bill. And then the very next day, the Senate was disarray when polls showed that the public didn't want to tax health benefits. So, is this effort moving forward or backward?
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROVNER: Both. And that's, you know, what happens so often with really big legislation like this. There is so much truth in that old saw that you should never watch law or sausage being made. There is a lot of interest in this - as there should be - we're talking about a sixth of the economy here.
But charting the daily ups and downs of this is like watching the stock market by the hour when what you're really interested in is your value of your 401k 30 years from now when you retire. It goes up and down and up and down, but those hourly fluctuations don't really tell you all that much.
HANSEN: Are they still shooting for an August deadline to get bills passed in the House and Senate?
ROVNER: Well, that is indeed the hope. Right now there's five committees - two in the Senate and three in the House - that are working on this. They're all falling a little bit behind, but there's enough cushion that it still looks like the House may be able to get its bill passed before it leaves at the end of July.
Whether the Senate can get its bill passed before it leaves the week after that, that's going to be a harder push, given the calendar. On the other hand, that was always really ambitious. But if this lapses into the fall, it really won't be the end of the process. Everybody thought that might happen anyway.
HANSEN: Now, most of what we've been hearing is about big issues - whether there will be a government health plan is one example. What are some of the other things in these bills that are going unnoticed?
ROVNER: You know, I'm sort of surprised at how many really big things there are that haven't gotten almost any attention. One of them, for instance, in the bill that was written by Senator Ted Kennedy, is a long-term care program - big long-term care program. It would be funded by premiums that working people would pay. These would be taken out of your paycheck unless you said no.
It would fund community-based long-term care. This is a huge issue as the baby boomers age that almost nobody is looking at. And it's in there and it's a big program.
HANSEN: Anything else?
ROVNER: Well, yeah, and this has gotten somewhat more attention, mostly because Republicans have been criticizing it. But also in that same Kennedy Senate bill, there's something called community transformation grants. The idea here is to prevent health expenses, really, by emphasizing prevention programs. That can range from anything from encouraging people to quit smoking to encouraging healthier options on restaurant menus to installing lights on walking paths so people can walk at night.
There's also some more health insurance specific things that haven't gotten much attention. For example, in all the bills, women would get a much fairer shake in insurance coverage than they do now. Insurers, for instance, would be required to cover maternity care - a lot don't do that now - and insurers wouldn't be able to charge women more because women tend to use more health care services than men do.
HANSEN: So, will all of these things end up in the final bill?
ROVNER: Well, first, that assumes there will be a final bill - that's by no means definite yet. But there's still a lot of giving and taking to be done. We are still early in this process, so we'll all have to stay tuned.
HANSEN: NPR's Julie Rovner. Thanks, Julie.
ROVNER: You're welcome.