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Obama strives for healthcare progress

UNITED States President Barack Obama is struggling to show progress in a race against the clock to revamp the US healthcare system this year.

Problems in Congress overshadowed a White House event yesterday designed to boost Obama's health overhaul, his top domestic priority.

Leaders from hospital industry trade groups appeared with US Vice President Joe Biden to announce that hospitals are ready to give up about US$155 billion over 10 years in government payments. The money could then be used to help pay for covering millions of Americans who do not have health insurance.

"Reform is coming," Biden said. "It is on track. ...We have never been as close as we are today." And in a firm message to lawmakers, he added. "We must and will enact reform by the end of August."

But Congress, not the health care industry, is the source of Obama's troubles.

Deep misgivings

Lawmakers returned on Tuesday from their July 4 US Independence Day holiday break with lots of questions about the complex legislation and deep misgivings about key elements under discussion.

Democratic senators in particular are having second thoughts about a proposed new tax on health insurance benefits provided by some employers. Without the tax - Republicans favor it as a brake on cost increases - the prospects for a bipartisan deal in the Senate appear to be in jeopardy.

The stakes are extremely high for Obama. The fate of legislation to overhaul the US healthcare system, with a major new role in it for the government, could become the defining issue of the president's first term.

Obama's ambitious timetable for passing a bill this year keeps slipping. Timing is critical because lawmakers might be reluctant to vote on such a charged issue as healthcare next year, when all House members and one-third of senators face elections.

"We're not there yet," said Democratic Senator Max Baucus who, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has sought a compromise with Republican colleagues. "I'm trying the best I can to get there soon."

Another senator deeply involved in the bipartisan negotiations said the proposed new tax on the costliest employer-paid insurance benefits is quickly losing favor with Democrats.


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