Senate health reform bill due next week

Democrats on Capitol Hill plan to introduce the first draft of legislation to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system next week.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is nearly ready to unveil the bill that Democrats have been piecing together for months, two senior Democrats on the committee told reporters Wednesday.

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“I think you’ll be able to see it probably next week or so,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

“We’re going to show you a bill that we’ll go forward with -- with the full understanding that that’s only one step in the process,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

Dodd and Mikulski offered their progress report just hours after President Obama weighed in heavily on the details of healthcare reform in a letter to HELP Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), lending the clout of his office to the debate and spelling out his parameters for the bill.

The senators revealed little about what their bill will contain other than to tell reporters that committee members were reviewing plans to promote preventive medicine and health information technology, as well as the means to extend coverage to all Americans.

The legislation will certainly include a federally run public plan that would provide health benefits in competition with private insurance,

The proposal is anathema to Republicans but Kennedy favors the public plan and Obama’s letter emphasized his insistence on it. Dodd said the panel was considering four of five models for the public plan.

HELP Committee Democrats have been meeting behind closed doors the past two days to go over the pieces that will make up the draft bill with an eye toward marking it up during the last two weeks of June, said Dodd, who has been coordinating the panel’s activities in the absence of the ailing Kennedy.

Dodd issued a warning of sorts to his fellow senators to be prepared for a hectic summer.

“I’ve made the request to the leader that, in July, if we’re able to complete that process, that we’ll be here Monday through Friday in July -- and into August if we have to,” Dodd said. “As long as it takes this process through. If we’re going to be here Tuesday through Thursday, you won’t get this done.”

The Senate Finance Committee, which also has authority over healthcare reform, is operating on a similar timetable.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Obama pledged last month that the lower chamber would pass legislation by July 31.

Despite indications that the two Senate panels will introduce substantially different bills – especially in the areas of Medicaid expansions and how to fashion a public plan – Democrats maintain they will meld the bills into a final product in time to stage a floor debate in July.

“I think that we will have a bill which we can interlock,” Mikulski said. “We’ve been talking. It’s not like we’re working on the HELP Committee, and -- there they are.”

HELP Committee Republicans will get their first look at the bill’s provisions later this week, said Dodd, who insisted that Democrats have not abandoned the minority despite their intentions to include policies opposed by Republicans, such as the public plan.

“Every single Democratic member of the labor committee wanted the strategy to be a bipartisan one, that we ought to make every effort to reach out,” Dodd said, adding that he discussed healthcare with ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) over dinner Tuesday.