Obama health care faces key vote

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama's top domestic priority faced a critical vote Tuesday, with the Senate Finance Committee set to cast judgment on his ambitious but troubled drive to remake US health care.

"Pretty much everything's been said. Now it's time to get the job done," Democratic Senator Max Baucus, the panel's chairman, said as the committee prepared to vote on his blueprint for achieving Obama's audacious goal.

The committee was all but certain to approve the 10-year, 829-billion-dollar plan meant to cut costs and provide affordable health insurance to most Americans, despite an 11th-hour attack from the mighty US insurance lobby.

The committee's vote will provide important clues on how the overhaul attempt will eventually fare in the US Congress, where four other panels have already approved versions of the sweeping legislation.

The White House was closely watching the finance committee, where its Democratic allies enjoy a 13-10 edge, hoping Senator Olympia Snowe could be the first congressional Republican to line up behind its favored approach.

But the Baucus legislation is not even certain to win unanimous support from Democrats, because it omits a government-backed insurance plan popularly known as a "public option."

Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jay Rockefeller, who favor such an approach, are not sure to back the Baucus bill.

While the committee's vote is a key skirmish in the pitched political battle over health care, and the White House hopes for victory this year, Obama faces many more fights before a final version of the legislation can reach his desk.

Ultimately, the Senate and House must pass the same bill -- agreeing on a compromise version if, as seems likely, they first approve different measures.

Obama has wagered huge political capital on the fight to pass health care reform, amid warnings of unsustainably high future costs and worries over the 46 million people in the United States who have no insurance.

On Monday, the White House and Democratic lawmakers hit back hard after the insurance lobby fired a surprise broadside at the overhaul effort, stoking fears of soaring costs under the approach favored by Obama.

Democrats dismissed the industry-funded report as a "hatchet job," while independent analysts found sizeable flaws in the analysis.

A study by auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) for the insurance lobby warned that the bill before the committee would hike projected cost rises per family by 1,700 dollars in four years, and by 4,000 dollars in the next decade.

The America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) lobby group, which commissioned the report, argued that new taxes on health insurance plans, medical device manufacturers and pharmaceutical giants would pass on extra costs to consumers.

The report marked a change of tactics: The industry, blamed for killing a health reform effort by then president Bill Clinton in 1993, had previously worked to mould the bill in talks with the White House and Congress.

The White House, which has waged a months-long campaign against conservative critics of its attempt to cut health care costs and to make treatment affordable to all Americans, quickly dismissed the report's credibility.

"This is a self-serving analysis from the insurance industry, one of the major opponents of health insurance reform," said Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman.

"It comes on the eve of a vote that will reduce the industry's profits. It is hard to take it seriously.

Last week, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) boosted the cause of health reform advocates, saying the draft Finance Committee effort would cut the US budget deficit by 81 billion dollars over 10 years.