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Senators work to trim cost of health bill

Bipartisan health care negotiators are aiming to cut the costs of their bill after getting an earful from voters, a participant in the closed-door talks said Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bipartisan health care negotiators are aiming to cut the costs of their bill after getting an earful from voters, a participant in the closed-door talks said Friday.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a moderate whose support could be crucial if President Barack Obama is to realize his goal of a comprehensive health care overhaul, said contact with constituents "sharpened our focus on issues such as affordability and cost."

"We keep reinventing the wheel in terms of our approach based on what we learn at home," Snowe told The Associated Press.

Snowe is one of six senators — three Democrats and three Republicans — on the pivotal Senate Finance Committee who have been negotiating for months to come up with a health care bill that could garner bipartisan support.

With raucous town halls dominating Congress' August recess and prospects for bipartisanship appearing to dim, Snowe said the outcome was uncertain.

"People are confused, and rightfully so given how many issues and how many plans are out there," Snowe said. "Ours isn't, and so whether or not we can break through that chatter remains to be seen."

Members of the so-called Gang of Six spoke on a conference call late Thursday, their first discussion since leaving Washington for recess.

They discussed controlling costs on their bill while still extending affordable coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans. The final price tag will likely hover around $900 billion over 10 years.

Snowe said keeping down costs means tinkering with the design of health care plans that would be offered through new purchasing exchanges. Another piece is the level of subsidies to be offered to help low-income people buy care, something that remains a matter of debate, Snowe said.

Debate over public option
In their reach for a bipartisan product, Finance Committee negotiators are looking at nonprofit co-ops instead of a new public insurance plan that has become a lightning rod in the debate.

How that will turn out remains to be seen. Another Finance negotiator, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has said there are not enough votes in the Senate to pass a health bill with a new public plan that would compete with private insurers.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the House couldn't pass a bill without one.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer seemed to contradict Pelosi on Friday when asked about her comments.

"I'm for a public option but I'm also for passing a bill," Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters. "We believe the public option is a necessary, useful and very important aspect of this, but you know, we'll have to see because there are many other important aspects of the bill as well."

Obama and members of his administration this week indicated a public plan wasn't an essential piece of a final bill, drawing criticism from some Democrats.

Before leaving town for a 10-day vacation, Obama met Friday with former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, an expert on health care policy and politics who was Obama's first choice for secretary of Health and Human Services before tax troubles derailed his nomination. A White House statement said the two "agreed that substantive reform that lowers costs, reforms the insurance industry, and expands coverage is too important to wait another year or another administration."