Key Senate Panel Rejects Public Health Care Option

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Liberal Democrats failed Tuesday to inject a government-run insurance plan into sweeping U.S. health care legislation taking shape in the Senate Finance Committee, despite widespread accusations that private insurers routinely deny coverage in pursuit of higher profits.

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The 15-8 rejection marked a victory for Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat and the committee chairman who is hoping to push his middle-of-the-road measure through the panel by week’s end. It also kept alive the possibility that at least one Republican may yet swing behind the bill, a key goal of both Baucus and President Barack Obama.

Obama promised to offer affordable health care to all Americans in his campaign and has made the issue a key priority in the first year of his presidency.

The United States is the only developed nation that does not have a comprehensive national health care plan, leaving about 50 million people without health insurance. The government provides coverage for the poor and elderly, but most Americans rely on private insurance, usually received through their employers. Some buy their own insurance or pay steep medical bills out of pocket.

“My job is to put together a bill that gets to 60 votes” in the full Senate, the Baucus, a Democrat, said shortly before he joined a majority on the committee in opposing the provision. “No one shows me how to get to 60 votes with a public option,” the term used to describe a new government role in health care. It takes 60 votes to overcome delaying actions that Republicans may attempt on the Senate floor.

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The maneuvering occurred as the committee plunged into a second week of public debate on legislation that generally adheres to conditions that Obama has advocated. The bill includes numerous new consumer protections, including a ban on companies denying insurance on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. At the same time it provides government subsidies to help lower-income Americans afford health insurance that is currently beyond their means. It also includes steps that supporters say will begin to slow the rate of growth in health care costs in the U.S.

After weeks of delay, both the House of Representatives and Senate appear on track to vote on different versions of health care legislation in October. Passage in both houses would set the stage for a compromise bill to be passed later in the year.

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