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US Budget Analysts Say Health Bill to Cut Deficit

by John Whitesides and Donna Smith
WASHINGTON - Democrats in the House of Representatives on Thursday predicted weekend passage of a sweeping healthcare overhaul that budget analysts said would cut the U.S. deficit over 10 years and dramatically expand health coverage.

President Barack Obama, who was scheduled to leave on an overseas trip on Sunday, postponed the trip to June to help secure support in what is expected to be a nail-biter vote on his top domestic legislative priority.

US President Barack Obama speaks on healthcare insurance reform in Strongsville, Ohio. (AFP/Saul Loeb) House Democratic leaders finished work on the last changes to the overhaul, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would expand insurance coverage at a cost of $940 billion over 10 years and cut the deficit by $138 billion in the same period.

At the White House, Obama said the healthcare bill, which has faced solid Republican opposition, represented "the most significant effort to reduce deficits since the Balanced Budget Act" of 1993.

"This is history, and this is progress," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters of the overhaul, which would represent the biggest changes to the $2.5 trillion healthcare system in the last four decades.

After weeks of wrangling over the package to make the numbers come out favorably, House leaders presented the final changes to Democrats at a morning caucus and will post them online later on Thursday.

"It took some time but we are very pleased," Pelosi said after the meeting.

Under the procedure Democrats devised to sidestep opposition and send the bill to Obama's desk, the House will vote on whether to approve the bill the Senate passed in December. The changes to that bill sought by Obama and House Democrats then would move in a second separate bill, which the Senate would take up next week.

The favorable CBO preliminary estimate could help Democrats round up the 216 votes they need to pass the overhaul in a vote that is now expected on Sunday, but Republicans said it showed the revised bill was more of the same.

"Every time a new iteration of the Democrats' healthcare bill is unveiled, the price tag goes up," Senator Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said.

The overhaul would extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, the CBO estimated, and ban insurance practices like refusing coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions.

STOCKS UP

Healthcare stocks, as measured by the Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor Index, rose 2.2 percent on Thursday and outpaced the broader market as investors bet growing delays on the vote raised prospects the bill would not pass.

"These stocks really are a speculators' paradise given the significant uncertainty as to what's going to happen with healthcare reform," said Steve Shubitz, an analyst with Edward Jones who follows big insurance companies.

The final legislative revisions are meant to ease concerns of Obama and House Democrats about the Senate's version of the bill, which had a budget savings of $118 billion over the first 10 years.

The changes include expanding subsidies to make insurance more affordable and more state aid for the Medicaid program for the poor.

They also would eliminate a controversial Senate deal exempting Nebraska from paying for Medicaid expansion costs, close a "doughnut hole" in prescription drug coverage and change the threshold on a tax on high-cost "Cadillac" insurance plans.

"I don't think I'd call it a Cadillac tax now," said Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I'd call it a Rolls Royce."

The bill would extend taxes for Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, to unearned income. The CBO report said the final bill would extend Medicare's solvency for nine years and reduce annual growth in Medicare expenditures.

"I think we'll see a lot of people's votes come together in the next few days," Representative Robert Andrews said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Tabassum Zakaria, Bill Berkrot and Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by David Alexander and Vicki Allen)

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