Special interests offer mixed reactions to Senate healthcare vote

K Street’s powerhouses have weighed in on the Senate’s passage of a historic healthcare reform bill — and the verdict is decidedly mixed.

Healthcare industry associations, many of which had already endorsed the legislation, offered cautious praise and conditional support; the health insurance industry expressed disappointed opposition; labor unions offered encouraging words but stopped short of endorsing the bill; and big-business groups slammed the bill.

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Though few lobbying organizations representing private-sector interests completely embraced the Senate bill, the measure provoked a more positive response than a House-passed version that, among other things, would create a government-run public option health insurance program and enact a stricter requirement that businesses cover their employees.

Senate Democrats won a coup when the powerful seniors lobby AARP endorsed their bill. Upon passage, AARP CEO A. Barry Rand was quick to issue an upbeat statement. “This morning the Senate brought us closer to meaningful healthcare reform than we have ever been before,” he said. Patients groups such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association also praised the Senate’s actions.

Perhaps sensing that President Barack Obama is now destined to sign healthcare reform into law, healthcare groups are favoring the relatively more business-friendly Senate bill.

The American Medical Association (AMA), the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the American Nurses Association had already endorsed the bill and praised the Senate for moving forward with healthcare reform. But no organization ignored the parts of the bill it dislikes.

“The AMA supported passage of the bill because it contains a number of key improvements for our healthcare system, which currently is not working for far too many patients or the physicians who dedicate their lives to patient care,” AMA President J. James Rohack said. The AMA, however, opposes the bill’s Medicare payment-setting commission and demands Congress permanently replace the current Medicare fee system, which threatens doctors with draconian cuts each year.

Hospital groups including the AHA struck a deal with the White House this summer in which they agreed to $155 billion in Medicare cuts in exchange for a healthcare system that covers nearly everyone and relieves them of the burden of giving away billions of dollars in free care to the indigent each year. “The bill begins to lay a solid foundation for coverage, delivery and payment reforms that can help hospitals provide quality care to more people,” AHA President and CEO Rich Umbdenstock said. The Federation of American Hospitals also issued a statement of support.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) made its own $80 billion deal with the White House. Despite mounting signs that Democrats will demand that the number rise, PhRMA Senior Vice President Ken Johnson issued a statement of support. “We believe the Senate bill provides the best blueprint for reform,” Johnson said. “Today, we believe the Senate voted with America’s best interests and future in mind.” The Biotechnology Industry Association also congratulated the Senate for passing the bill.

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), which lobbied successfully against the public option and other provisions, nevertheless opposed the bill, which it believes would overburden its members with regulation. “Provisions in this legislation will increase, rather than decrease, healthcare costs; reduce coverage options; and disrupt existing coverage for families, seniors and small businesses,” AHIP President and CEO Karen Ignagni said.

But business groups presented stronger objections to the bill than even the health insurance industry.

“The bill that was passed by the Senate today is counterproductive, does little to lower the cost of healthcare, and it is not reform,” said Bruce Josten, the executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S Chamber of Commerce. "It implements crippling new taxes and hurts our ability to create jobs at the worst possible time for the economy."

Major small-business associations such as the National Federation of Independent Business also opposed the bill.

Labor unions acknowledged that the Senate bill takes strides toward their goals of extending insurance coverage and lowering healthcare costs. But organized labor is miffed at the absence of a public option and the presence of a tax on the kind of high-cost health insurance plans many unions negotiated for their members.

“Today, under Sen. Reid’s leadership, all 60 senators of the Democratic caucus stood together to put the well-being of the American people before Washington gridlock and partisan politics,” said Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern.

Like Stern, however, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka made plain that unions prefer the House bill, which adheres more closely to organized labor’s agenda. “Despite doing some good things, the Senate bill remains inadequate,” Trumka said.

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