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Healthcare Reform Drafts Largely Depend On Ailing Kennedy

June 9, 2009

Senator Edward Kennedy, now in the second year of fighting deadly brain cancer, is a large part of President Barack Obama’s quest to overhaul U.S. healthcare, Reuters reported.

Kennedy recently floated a bill considered to be a first draft of Obama’s high-stakes effort to provide health insurance to all Americans, something Kennedy said, personally, is “the cause of my life”.

However, conservative Republicans and centrist Democrats are ready to chip away at the more liberal elements of his proposal, such as a government-run health plan.

James Thurber of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies said the ailing 77-year-old senator is critical to passage of the new healthcare legislation.

But Thurber said that doesn’t mean a bill wouldn’t pass without him.

“Other people are involved. But he’s the key. He knows more about healthcare than anyone else in the Senate, he’s widely respected by both parties and is one of the most important senators in history,” said Thurber.

As part of President Obama’s broader plan to overhaul the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system, he has asked Congress to pass legislation by October to create a public insurance program that would compete with private insurers.

But many Republicans and private insurers say Obama is setting the country on the road to a government monopoly on health insurance in his bid to provide coverage to an estimated 46 million uninsured Americans.

While Democrats could have enough votes to pass it through the House of Representatives by themselves, they’re seeking bipartisan Senate backing since both chambers must pass a bill before Obama can sign it into law.

Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee would require businesses and individuals to purchase medical coverage, and it would bar insurance companies from refusing to cover anyone because of preexisting conditions.

The draft legislation would also provide federal subsidies to families buying coverage.

However, the more moderate Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus has taken a higher profile on the Democratic health plan in the past year, with Kennedy largely sidelined by the brain cancer he was diagnosed with 13 months ago.

A senior Democratic leadership aide said the end product will likely be 75 percent Kennedy and 25 percent Baucus, while others say the final balance may be more 50-50.

Kennedy, the leading liberal voice in Congress, has been a popular yet polarizing figure and frequent target for conservatives during much of his 47-year Senate career.

Senate Republicans believe Kennedy is the easiest Democrat to work with and the most bipartisan, according to a recent survey by The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication. But many believe the senatorial camaraderie may become strained over a big healthcare bill, largely because of questions over how to pay its potential cost of $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Kennedy’s bid to provide insurance to all “can happen,” according to Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who has teamed up with Kennedy to enact new health legislation.

“But they have to get together with people like me” to get legislation that would be effective,” Hatch said.

Since falling ill, Kennedy has kept in contact with Obama, colleagues and staff who have taken lead roles in the drive for reform.

People close to him say Kennedy remains mentally sharp and determined, but he walks with a cane, balances work with treatment, and often looks tired and drained.

Kennedy’s particular illness kills half its victims within a year and patients rarely survive more than three years.

“He has already beaten the odds, nobody wants to openly talk about this, but we all want to get this bill done in time for him to see it signed into law,” said one senior senator.

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Image Credit: UPI

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