President Barack Obama’s efforts to overhaul the US’s healthcare system received a major fillip on Thursday when two influential organisations endorsed a reform bill that will be put to the vote in the House of Representatives on Saturday.
AARP, which represents Americans over the age of 50, and the American Medical Association both said they would support the bill, which would extend cover to 36m people without insurance.
“I am extraordinarily pleased and grateful to learn that the AARP and the American Medical Association are both supporting the health insurance reform bill that will soon come up to a vote in the House of Representatives,” Mr Obama said on Thursday, making a surprise appearance at a regular press briefing.
“We are closer to passing this reform than ever before. And now that the doctors and medical professionals of America are standing with us; now that the organisations charged with looking out for the interests of seniors are standing with us, we are even closer,” the president said.
Representatives will put the bill to a rare Saturday vote but, with abortion and the cost remaining contentious, Democratic leaders were cautious in predicting success. Democrats have 258 seats in the House and need 218 votes to pass the bill.
“I think it’s going to be close,” Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, told reporters. Some lawmakers could be swayed after AARP, which has almost 40m members, on Thursday said it had concluded that the House bill met its “twin goals of making coverage affordable to our younger members and protecting Medicare for seniors”.
“We can say with confidence that [the bill] meets those goals with improved benefits for people in Medicare and needed health insurance market reforms to help ensure every American can purchase affordable health coverage,” said Barry Rand, AARP’s chief executive.
The organisation would now put “its full weight” behind comprehensive health care reform and would send this message out to its members, he said.
However, the AMA was more guarded, saying that the bill was not perfect but met enough of its requirements to warrant the doctors’ organisation’s support.
“On balance, [the bill] is consistent with our principles of pluralism, freedom of choice, freedom of physician practice and universal access,” said James Rohack, the AMA president.
“It will significantly expand health insurance coverage to Americans to empower patient and physician decision making; institute meaningful insurance market reforms… and reduce administrative burdens,” he said.
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, said the bill, which combines drafts from three House committees, would cost $894bn (£540bn, €602bn) over a decade, under the $900bn limit set by Mr Obama.
It includes a public insurance option that would allow doctors and hospitals to negotiate reimbursement rates with the government, impose a 5.4 per cent surtax on the wealthy and expands eligibility for Medicaid, which offers healthcare to the poor.
However, Republicans say that the bill would in fact cost $1,200bn over the next 10 years and have attacked it as a “government takeover of healthcare”.
Even if the bill is passed in the House on Saturday, it still faces significant legislative hurdles.
Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, is now in the process of merging various upper chamber bills but, in a sign that this is proving more difficult than imagined, this week said he would not be bound by “deadlines” in putting forward a final version.
Ms Pelosi and Mr Reid had previously said they expected to have the bill passed through Congress by Thanksgiving, at the end of November, and be ready for Mr Obama to sign into law before Christmas.