Altmire has 'more favorable' impression of Senate's bill

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WASHINGTON -- Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, who bucked his party to vote against the health reform bill in the House of Representatives, said yesterday that he's warming up to the version that is set to pass the Senate.

"I would take a much more favorable look at it," the second-term congressman said in a phone interview.

The Senate yesterday scheduled a final vote for tomorrow at 8 a.m. on the $871 billion overhaul of the nation's health care system. The changes would impose new restrictions on insurance companies and provide coverage to 31 million Americans, while saving the government an estimated $130 billion over the next decade, mostly through Medicare cuts and tax hikes.

Mr. Altmire was one of 39 Democrats to vote against the legislation in the House, where it passed 220-215 on Nov. 7, but he said his primary concerns about cost containment have been addressed in the Senate version of the bill. The Senate bill, which likely will pass by a 60-40 margin with no votes to spare, must be merged with the House version in a conference committee.

The Senate version, like the House, authorizes demonstration programs to test ideas like bundling of payments for certain conditions, as opposed to the traditional fee-for-service model. But the Senate goes further in authorizing the secretary of Health and Human Services to implement such plans on a wider scale, rather than waiting for Congress to approve them.

Mr. Altmire said he would prefer such cost-containment measures be written into the bill rather than studied, but the Senate version would bring them closer to implementation than the House bill does.

The primary sticking points in the conference committee likely will be the fate of the government-run insurer (otherwise known as the public option), what combination of taxes helps fund the bill and how the bill addresses government funding of abortion.

Many liberals have criticized Senate Democrats for dropping the public option to appease party moderates needed for 60 votes. And neither abortion rights nor anti-abortion House Democrats are pleased with the latest compromise on how the bill deals with abortions -- strengthening the wall between public and private money used to fund them on the newly created health insurance exchanges and allowing states to ban abortion coverage on their individual exchanges.

Mr. Altmire has downplayed those hot-button concerns, though he supports stronger abortion language and voted for an amendment in the House by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., that effectively banned all insurance plans participating in the exchange from covering abortions.

The former UPMC lobbyist said that despite the concerns of many House Democrats, he expects something similar to the Senate bill to get through the House.

"It might be a different group of people [voting for it]," Mr. Altmire said. "It might lose some people from the left and gain some people on the right -- myself included."

But first, Mr. Altmire said he would have to read through all 2,700 pages or so of the final bill before he makes a call. A few things that he's seen in news reports have bothered him, such as special deals for home states of fence-sitting senators like Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

"That does trouble me," Mr. Altmire said. "Those are the things I think the American people hate about the legislative process and we need a more thorough vetting of them [in conference]."

Like he did the last time, Mr. Altmire said he would solicit the opinions of his constituents once the merged bill is ready for a vote.

"There are people on the ideological extreme on both sides who are invested in the politics on this," he said.

Daniel Malloy can be reached at or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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