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Senate passes coverage for mammograms, cuts in Medicare

Health care bill advances despite push by GOP

By David Espo and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Associated Press / December 4, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Passing a critical test, Senate Democrats closed ranks yesterday behind $460 billion in politically risky Medicare cuts at the heart of health care legislation, thwarting a Republican attempt to doom President Obama’s sweeping overhaul.

The Senate also approved safeguards for coverage of mammograms, requiring insurance plans to cover the breast cancer screening test in an array of preventive measures and essentially wiping out a federal advisory committee recommendation to defer routine mammograms until women reach the age of 50.

The day’s votes were the first since the Senate’s health care debate began Monday and demonstrated the ability of Democrats to move ahead in the face of implacable Republican opposition.

The bid by the bill’s critics to reverse cuts to the popular Medicare program failed on a vote of 58 to 42, drawing the support of two Democratic defectors and all Republicans. Approval would have stripped out money needed to help pay for expanding coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans and would have sent the entire 2,074-page bill back to the Senate Finance Committee for a redo.

AARP, the seniors’ lobby, supported the 10-year package of cuts in projected spending, giving Democrats political cover for their decision to pare back subsidies to private Medicare plans as well as payments to hospitals, hospices, home health agencies, and other providers.

Democrats said seniors will not lose any guaranteed benefits and contended that the cuts - amounting to a 2 percent slowdown in spending - will help keep Medicare solvent by making it more efficient. “My colleagues on the Republican side have resorted to the politics of fear to preserve a broken health care system,’’ said Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Republicans disagreed vigorously, saying that seniors in the popular Medicare Advantage private plans will lose benefits and predicting that lawmakers will ultimately back away from the cuts, once seniors start feeling the brunt.

“Medicare is already in trouble. The program needs to be fixed, not raided to create another new government program,’’ said the party’s leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The Medicare vote went to the heart of seniors’ concerns that cuts to the program would undermine the quality of their care.

Furious with opposition from AARP, Senator John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who pushed the bid to halt the cuts, delivered a message to seniors: “Take your AARP card, cut it in half and send it back. They’ve betrayed you.’’

In the end, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and James Webb of Virginia were the only Democrats to support McCain’s proposal.

The first votes yesterday were held under a special agreement requiring 60 votes to prevail. The margin was also close on the women’s health amendment, which passed 61 to 39.

Though Democrats have 60 votes in the Senate, two voted against the provision by Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Republican Olympia J. Snowe of Maine: Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Nelson.

The measure was saved by three Republicans voting in favor - Snowe, David Vitter of Louisiana, and Susan M. Collins of Maine.

Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, was the only New England lawmaker to vote no.