Finance Committee Finalizes Health Reform Proposal

October 2, 2009 ( - The U.S. Senate Finance Committee completed the amendment process for its health reform proposal and set a vote for next week.

Reuters reports that the panel is awaiting an official cost estimate on the roughly $900 billion measure before advancing the measure to the full Senate.

The bill requires Americans to purchase coverage, includes tax credits to help individuals and families purchase insurance, proposes improvements to health care delivery and Medicare, and does not include a government-run insurance option (see U.S. Senate Finance Committee Presents Health Care Bill ). A provision imposing a fee on employers who do not offer health insurance to employees was withdrawn last week (see Kerry Pulls Back Health Bill ‘Pay to Play’ Provision ).

The bill would impose a 40% excise tax on insurance plans in excess of $8,000 for individuals and $21,000 for families. According to Reuters, an amendment approved on a 13-10 party line vote raises those levels for retirees and high-risk professions, such as coal miners, to $9,850 and $26,000, respectively.

In addition, the panel voted 22-1 for an amendment by Senators Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that would exempt more lower-income people from the requirement to purchase insurance and delay implementation of penalties for failure to purchase insurance. The bill would have allowed hardship waivers only if the cost of insurance exceeded 10% of a person’s income, but the amendment lowered that threshold to 8%, the news report said.

The amendment would also delay imposition of penalties on people who fail to purchase insurance – with no penalties for anyone who failed to purchase in 2013, and after that, penalties phased in by increments of $200 a year, up to a maximum of $950 for individuals and $1,900 for families.

The committee approved a proposal by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) that would allow states to negotiate deals with health care plans for those on low incomes. The amendment to the panel's health reform bill would allow states to voluntarily negotiate with health care plans to provide coverage to people with incomes lower than twice the poverty level, about $44,000 for a family of four, but who are not eligible for the Medicaid health program for the poor, according to Reuters.

The committee's bill would create state-based exchanges where individuals without employer-sponsored coverage and small businesses could shop for insurance, but the exchanges would not include a government-run plan. Instead, the committee's bill would create nonprofit insurance cooperatives to create competition.

The news report said the panel also voted for an amendment offered by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) that would set a $500,000 limit on the amount of executive pay that health insurance companies can deduct from taxable income.

The bill will be merged with one approved earlier by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (see U.S. Senate HELP Panel First to Report out Health Reform Measure ) before it is taken to the full Senate in mid-October.