WASHINGTON — The Senate health committee's top two Democrats on Thursday rolled out a revamped plan to overhaul health care that would cost $611 billion over 10 years — far less than their previous version — but would impose a tax on many employers.
Under legislation proposed by Health Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., most employers who don't offer health coverage would be assessed annual fees of $750 per full-time worker or $375 per part-time worker. Companies with fewer than 25 employees would be exempt. The senators called the fee "modest."
The Congressional Budget Office estimated last month that the previous version of their health care bill would cost $1 trillion over 10 years. The CBO scored their revised version at $611 billion over 10 years, the senators said.
The legislation would create a government health-insurance plan to be available nationwide. The Department of Health and Human Services would negotiate rates and premiums. A health insurance "gateway" would provide access to private insurance.
Dodd and Kennedy outlined their revised plan in a letter to colleagues.
"For the many Americans who have good coverage, nothing will change," the senators wrote. "They will still be able to keep their doctor, their hospital and their insurance plan. What our proposal offers these families is stability; no longer will Americans with good health care have to worry about losing everything if they lose or change their job, or if someone in their family becomes sick or injured."
President Barack Obama quickly embraced the plan, saying it "reflects many of the principles I've laid out."
Among them: changes that "will prohibit insurance companies from refusing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, and the concept of insurance exchanges, where individuals can find affordable coverage if they lose their jobs, move or get sick."
However, Obama stopped short of specifically endorsing the "fee" on employers.
The Kennedy-Dodd bill's price tag would fall not only because of the new fee but also because they assume that fewer employers would drop coverage. The pair stressed the importance of private companies staying involved in health insurance and that employers "should still share in the responsibility for ensuring that everyone is covered."
"The completed bill virtually eliminates the dropping of currently covered employees from employer-sponsored health plans," they said. Their statement also projected that about 97 percent of Americans would have coverage under their plan.
The bill faces opposition not only from many Republicans — who are wary of any government health-insurance option — but also from the Senate Finance Committee, where Democratic leaders have been working with Republican members in search of a bipartisan consensus.
Congress' effort to overhaul health care still faces a long road. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee began writing its bill last month, then recessed for the Fourth of July holiday. Its sessions are scheduled to resume Tuesday.
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