U.S.

U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, discusses the healthcare reform bill during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 16, 2009. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee opened consideration of its long-delayed healthcare reform bill on Tuesday, with affordability topping the list of concerns for Democrats who control the panel.

Committee members filed 564 potential amendments to the healthcare plan offered by Democratic Chairman Max Baucus as the raging debate over President Barack Obama's top domestic priority entered a new phase in Congress.

This is our opportunity to make history, Baucus said in opening what is expected to be at least three days of debate on a broad revamp of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry. He said his plan takes the best ideas offered by Democrats and Republicans.

It's designed to get the 60 votes it needs to pass, he said, referring to the votes necessary in the 100-member Senate to overcome potential Republican procedural hurdles.

Obama has pushed for a sweeping healthcare overhaul that would rein in costs, create competition for insurers and expand coverage to many of the 46 million uninsured people living in the United States.

The White House kept up the pressure on Tuesday by releasing research showing insurance premiums have risen faster than inflation in every U.S. state -- by between 90 and 150 percent in the past decade, while consumer prices have risen 28 percent.

The healthcare overhaul has been besieged by critics and slowed by battles in Congress, where elements of the insurance and healthcare industries have lobbied against parts of it.

The finance panel is the last of five congressional committees to take up a healthcare bill after months of negotiation failed to win Republican support.

Senator Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the panel and one of the Gang of Six negotiators who worked with Baucus, said the panel had been rushed into considering the measure, and that the proposal included many significant provisions he did not support.

Hopefully it's not ended, but right now it is, he said of negotiations on the measure. The cry of impatience has won out. They have put moving quickly over moving correctly.

Many of the panel's amendments were designed to reduce costs and make insurance more affordable. To help ease those concerns, Baucus will adjust his bill to make it easier for people at all income levels to afford insurance under his plan.

SEEKING AFFORDABILITY

In shifts incorporating several Democratic-sponsored amendments, Baucus said he would consider an expansion of subsidies to help purchase insurance, a reduction in penalties for not buying insurance and an increase in the level where an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans kicks in.

Baucus would pay for the changes with $28 billion in surplus from the bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last week the proposal would reduce the deficit by $49 billion over 10 years.

Under the plan Baucus unveiled last week, all U.S. citizens and legal residents would be required to obtain health insurance, with subsidies offered on a sliding scale to help people buy it. 

The plan would create state-based exchanges where individuals and small businesses could shop for insurance. The proposal also would levy fees on healthcare companies and insurers, tax high-cost insurance plans and expand Medicaid, the healthcare system for the poor.

Many Democrats have questioned whether the subsidies are generous enough, and panel Democrats had offered amendments similar to the changes being considered by Baucus.

Democratic Senator John Rockefeller of West Virginia has offered an amendment to exempt workers in high-risk professions -- such as coal miners in his home state -- from the tax because they typically have expensive insurance policies.

Other amendments would require a government-run public insurance option, which is not included in the bill, and would kill the bill's provision to create nonprofit cooperatives to inject competition into the insurance market.

Republicans offered 292 of the bill's amendments, including proposals to eliminate the individual insurance requirement, allow purchase of insurance across state lines and eliminate the fees on healthcare industries.

Republican Olympia Snowe, a moderate who was another of the Gang of Six negotiators with Baucus, offered an amendment making the government-run public insurance option an emergency option if coverage remained too expensive.

Snowe's trigger option would establish a government-run plan in any state where affordable coverage -- as defined by a portion of an individual's income -- was not available to 95 percent of residents.