March 22nd, 2010
12:33 AM ET
12 years ago

Congress passes landmark health care reform bill

WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama won a historic victory in the struggle for health care reform Sunday as the House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill overhauling the American medical system.

The bill passed in a 219-212 vote after more than a year of bitter partisan debate. All 178 Republicans opposed it, along with 34 Democrats.

The measure, which cleared the Senate in December, will now go to Obama's desk to be signed into law. It constitutes the biggest expansion of federal health care guarantees since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid more than four decades ago.

A separate compromise package of changes expanding the reach of the measure also passed the House over unanimous GOP opposition, and is now set to be taken up by the Senate.

The overall $940 billion plan is projected to extend insurance coverage to roughly 32 million additional Americans. It represents a significant step toward the goal of universal coverage sought by every Democratic president since Harry Truman.

Most Americans will now be required to have health insurance or pay a fine. Larger employers will be required to provide coverage or risk financial penalties. Total individual out-of-pocket expenses will be capped and insurers will be barred from denying coverage based on gender or pre-existing conditions.

The compromise package would add to the bill's total cost partly by expanding insurance subsidies for middle- and lower-income families. The measure would scale back the bill's taxes on expensive insurance plans.

Numerous House members insisted they would not vote for the Senate bill without a clear promise that senators would approve the changes.

"This is what change looks like," Obama said shortly after the votes. The passage of health care reform is "not a victory for any one party. ... It's a victory for the American people and it's a victory for common sense."

The president said that successful reform proves Americans "are still a people capable of doing big things."

The rare Sunday votes occurred after a long weekend of intense negotiations among the White House, House leaders, and individual congressmen. Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Saturday to make a last minute plea to the House Democratic caucus. He spent much of the past week trying to personally convince dozens of members.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, worked with administration officials to defuse a potential rebellion among socially conservative Democrats concerned that the bill won't do enough to prevent taxpayer-funded abortions.

She also brokered a last-minute deal among several Democrats worried about disparities in Medicare funding for individual states.

Republicans failed to stop the Democratic health care initiative despite utilizing virtually every weapon in their legislative arsenal. GOP leaders have repeatedly warned the plan will lead to a government takeover of America's private employer-based health care system.

They have also argued it will lead to higher premiums and taxes while imposing harsh Medicare cuts and doing little to control spiraling medical costs.

Shortly before the House voted on the bill, Pelosi said health care reform was necessary to end insurance industry abuses and bring greater economic stability to most Americans.

Congress will be "making history, making progress and restoring the American dream" by passing reform, she said. It is time to "complete the great unfinished business of our society." Health care "is a right and not a privilege."

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, argued that Democratic leaders had betrayed the trust of the public by pushing ahead with a bill that lacks broad public support.

"We have failed to listen to America and we have failed to reflect the will of our constituents," he said. "And when we fail to reflect that will, we fail ourselves and we fail our country."

He also slammed what he characterized as a legislative process marked by a lack of transparency and accountability.

"Look at how this bill was written," he said, his voice steadily rising. "Can you say it was done openly? With transparency and accountability? Without back room deals that were struck behind closed doors? ... Hell no you can't!"

The $875 billion bill now headed to Obama's desk is projected to cut the federal deficit by $118 billion over the next 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

If the compromise plan clears the Senate, the bill's total cost will rise by $65 billion. Projected deficits, however, will be reduced by an additional $25 billion.

The plan, according to CBO projections, will cut budget deficits by more than $1 trillion in its second decade.

It will subsidize insurance for a family of four making up to about $88,000 annually, or 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

It also creates a series of health insurance exchanges designed to make it easier for small businesses, the self-employed and the unemployed to pool resources and purchase less expensive coverage.

Medicaid will be significantly expanded, ensuring coverage to those earning up to 133 percent of the poverty level, or just over $29,000 for a family of four.

The bill cuts projected Medicare spending by roughly $500 billion, in part through reductions in the Medicare Advantage program. Democratic leaders have promised the reductions will not affect service to Medicare recipients.

The bill hikes Medicare payroll taxes on families making more than $250,000.

Starting in 2013, it also imposes a 40 percent tax on insurance companies providing expensive "Cadillac" health plans valued at more than $8,500 for individuals and $23,000 for families.

Proponents of the tax on high-end plans argue it's one of the most effective ways to curb medical inflation. However, many Democrats oppose taxing such policies because it would hurt union members who traded higher salaries for more generous health benefits.

If the compromise bill becomes law, the threshold for imposing the Cadillac tax will be raised to health plans valued at more than $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families.

The tax won't kick in until 2018.

Under the plan now headed to Obama, individuals are required to purchase health insurance coverage or face a fine of up to $750 or 2 percent of their income - whichever is greater. It includes a hardship exemption for poorer Americans.

Companies with more than 50 employees that don't provide coverage are required to pay a fee of $750 per worker if any of its employees rely on government subsidies to purchase coverage.

The compromise package would drop the individual fine to $695 or 2.5 percent of income, whichever is greater. The fine on companies failing to provide coverage would jump to $2,000 per employee.

Federally-funded abortion coverage for people purchasing insurance through the exchanges will be banned under the bill now passed by Congress. Exceptions will be made in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.

Individuals receiving federal assistance who want abortion coverage will have to purchase the coverage using private funds.

Illegal immigrants will be barred from buying insurance in the health insurance exchanges.

Parents, however, will be entitled to keep their children on their health care plans until age 26.

While passage of the Senate bill is a major win for Democrats on a major party priority, Pelosi had to take a number of steps in recent weeks to assuage House members unhappy with the measure.

A deeply unpopular special exemption for the state of Nebraska from all new Medicaid expenses - known as the "Cornhusker Kickback" - would be eliminated under the compromise plan. The federal government will instead assist every state by picking up 100 percent of the costs of expanded Medicaid coverage between 2014 and 2016, and 90 starting in 2020.

The speaker also tried to sweeten the deal for some progressive members of her caucus partly by adding additional subsidies and a major student loan reform measure to the compromise plan.

The reform measure - a priority for Obama - would end the practice of having private banks offer student loans and would expand direct lending from the government.

In addition, the compromise plan closes the Medicare prescription drug "doughnut hole" by 2020. Under current law, Medicare stops covering drug costs after a plan and beneficiary have spent more than $2,830 on prescription drugs. It starts paying again after an individual's out-of-pocket expenses exceed $4,550.

Senior citizens stuck in the doughnut hole this year would receive a $250 rebate.

Several fiscally conservative Democrats were assuaged by the CBO's estimate of the bill's long-term impact on the federal deficit.

A key group of anti-abortion rights Democrats, meanwhile, was reassured by a last-minute promise of an executive order from Obama stating that the provisions in the health care bill comply with the 32-year-old Hyde Amendment that sharply restricts federal funding for abortion.

Emotions exploded shortly after the vote, however, as one skeptical Republican shouted "baby killer" at Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a leader of anti-abortion Democrats involved in negotiations over Obama's order.

The speaker also considered trying to help unhappy House Democrats by allowing them to avoid a direct vote on the Senate bill. Numerous congressmen had advocated passing a rule that would have deemed the Senate bill approved once the separate package of changes had passed.

GOP leaders objected furiously to the so-called "deem and pass" maneuver. House leaders backed away from the idea on Saturday.

Republicans are still fuming over Democrats' decision to use a legislative maneuver called reconciliation that will allow the compromise measures to clear the Senate with a simple majority of 51 votes.

Senate Democrats lost their filibuster-proof 60-seat supermajority in January with the election of GOP Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Republicans contend that reconciliation, which is limited to provisions pertaining to the budget, was never meant to facilitate passage of a sweeping reform measure such as the health care bill. Democrats point out that reconciliation was used to pass several major bills in recent years, including George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

House Democrats have been continually reassured that the compromise package will be approved by the more conservative Senate.

Pelosi said Friday that "when our members go to vote, they will have all the assurances they need" that the Senate will approve the compromise plan.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, attended the Saturday meeting between Obama and House Democrats. He presented a letter indicating that the Senate would use reconciliation to pass the House's changes.

"We believe that health insurance reform cannot wait and must not be obstructed," the letter said. "We support an up-or-down majority vote and will vote to make these improvements."

The letter was not signed, though Reid told the House members a majority of the Senate now backs reconciliation.

–CNN's Ted Barrett, Dana Bash, Craig Broffman, Tom Cohen, Lisa Desjardins, Evan Glass, Brianna Keilar, Deirdre Walsh and Robert Yoon contributed to this report

Filed under: Health care • Uncategorized
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Chad from Tampa

    Back room deals, 1 Trillion in new spending, higher taxes, less doctors, more patients, more gov't control over our lives. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where this country is headed...

    March 22, 2010 12:38 am at 12:38 am |
  2. Fed Up

    Good. Now Congress can give up their pay, plus all of their "speaking fees" and any other income they have to pay for it. The people don't have to pay it. No tax increases, remember? Vote the clowns out!

    March 22, 2010 12:40 am at 12:40 am |
  3. Frank Robin

    I wanted to see meaningful health care reform passed. The bill that was passed by the Senate and now by the House is not at all what I hoped for but I felt it could be a very small and timid step in the right direction. Now I feel a little like the guy who met a girl in a bar, had a one night stand and, in the cold grey light of dawn, worries about having contracted some dread disease. Sure hope this all works out.

    March 22, 2010 12:48 am at 12:48 am |
  4. Lance

    Thank the lord. I can stop worrying as much about my family getting sick and concentrate more on starting a business. I make too much to qualify for Medicaid and not enough to afford health care. My cousin died 250000 in debt just because she caught pneumonia.

    I can purchase a home and not worry about it being stripped from me because of crushing health costs. This bill will mark the biggest spurt of growth in the American Economy to date.

    Obama came through. Bigtime. I'm so, so proud of my country and my president tonight. It's all been worth it.

    Again, thank the lord. Thank the lord thank the lord thank the lord!


    March 22, 2010 12:48 am at 12:48 am |
  5. Alex in Wisconsin

    Let the end of our nation begin with the continued health of it's people....i mean with the end of insurance abuses...i mean with the anti-life nature inherent to a bill that's trying to keep people healthy.... i mean with a bill that is bad for the deficit because it cuts the deficit....i mean because big government is getting too big, unlike the Bush years with the patriot someone remind me why i'm supposed to be angry again?(Assuming ethnicity isn't a factor of course)

    March 22, 2010 12:54 am at 12:54 am |
  6. scary liberal

    very happy, but wouldve been even happier with a public option!

    March 22, 2010 12:54 am at 12:54 am |
  7. Hiram

    YES! Finally! This is going to help a lot of people, save a lot of lives, create a lot of jobs, and will eventually help reduce the deficit. And not one Republican will be able to take any credit for it. Once this kicks in and starts working and people see what a good idea it was, the GOP is DONE. And that's probably the greatest help to America of all.

    The Republicans talked a lot about health care reform this year, but when they were running the show for the past 8 years, they never did ANYTHING. And now it's going to cost them.

    March 22, 2010 12:54 am at 12:54 am |
  8. Shelly


    March 22, 2010 01:00 am at 1:00 am |
  9. P Chacho

    To Follow: Civil disobedience; out right refusal to follow laws; seccession by states; out right rebellion;You reap what you sow. obama and the marxist/progressives have pissed off a lot of good Americans. We do not like seeing OUR county destroyed by these arrogant bastards. I, for one will do all I can to make their lives a living hell. I will not be alone. If I were in law enforcement I would start thinking about a new career.

    March 22, 2010 01:03 am at 1:03 am |
  10. Jin

    FINALLY this congress got off its dead ass and accomplished something. Just as FDR was opposed by the fat cats so was this historic legislation. Now hopefully the sturm and drang will subside and America can come to recognize that this was, in fact, the right thing for the country.

    March 22, 2010 01:07 am at 1:07 am |
  11. diridi

    nation's victory...let me celebrate...myself....God bless dems...

    March 22, 2010 01:11 am at 1:11 am |
  12. Tony

    A very sad day. The end of the USA as we know it and the beginning of the SRA (Socialist Republic of America). Too bad our Congress is so out of touch. Prepare to fight back in November and save America from Socialist Federal government. Return the power to the States as our Founding Fathers intended.

    "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, " – Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

    March 22, 2010 01:15 am at 1:15 am |
  13. Tim

    God Bless America, and our Democratic leaders.

    March 22, 2010 01:21 am at 1:21 am |
  14. Keith in Austin

    A travesty against the hard working, tax-paying Americans. A victory for Socialism, those seeking more entitlements, Nanny government and a free ride on the backs of others.

    March 22, 2010 01:27 am at 1:27 am |
  15. Daina

    I am SOOO proud of President Obama and the democrats that went up against ALL ODDS and got the beginning of Health Care Reform done.

    Thank you, President Obama. And to the Republicans-no thanks to the party of NO NO NO!

    Daina Gray

    March 22, 2010 01:29 am at 1:29 am |
  16. Ricardo

    At Last. Finally someone cares about the American people.

    March 22, 2010 01:52 am at 1:52 am |
  17. Center left-out

    Well....we know know how the Republicans like their Health care, down their throats. Because that what just what happen.

    March 22, 2010 02:27 am at 2:27 am |
  18. Justin

    I think I join my fellow Americans when I say "Wooohooo!"

    Today was a good day.

    March 22, 2010 02:45 am at 2:45 am |
  19. Tony - FLA

    Freedom takes a hit. I hope the Supremes can hit the Dems back.

    March 22, 2010 03:08 am at 3:08 am |