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Health Care Bill Elicits Mixed Views

The nation’s business lobbying groups spent Tuesday evening poring over more than 600 pages of legislative language contained in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s just-unveiled Affordable Health Choices Act.

While some groups, including those that could be most deeply affected by health care reforms, said they needed more details or more time to digest what Chairman Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) bill could mean for their industries, other associations and lobbyists were clear that the bill was heading in the wrong direction.

The long-awaited legislation includes a public option plan and an employer mandate, but committee members are planning to continue to meet to discuss those controversial issues.

“I can’t use the word oppose yet,— said Randy Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “But we engaged in long discussions behind closed doors with Sen. Kennedy’s staff, and we’re disappointed in what we see.—

Johnson said chamber members are against a government-run public plan option and employer mandates to provide health coverage to their employees.

“If you’re a businessman and you’ve got to either provide health care, the level of which is going to be set by the government, or pay a civil fine, that’s pretty scary to our members,— Johnson said.

Neil Trautwein, a vice president at the National Retail Federation, said he’s glad the committee is willing to consider alternatives to the employer mandate, but, he said, “They have still not done what we asked and what we worked so carefully with them, which is to address what is wrong in health care and maintain what’s right and help us deliver lower cost and better quality health care.—

He called an employer mandate “a crushing burden— for retailers, and added that the NRF also has concerns with the public plan.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a key stakeholder in the health care reform debate, was still assessing the proposals, PhRMA’s Senior Vice President Ken Johnson said. “While PhRMA is currently reviewing the health care reform proposals and has not yet taken a position, we continue to support efforts that can help all Americans access high-quality and affordable healthcare coverage and believe that a bipartisan process is critical to achieving this important goal,— Johnson said in a press release.

Some groups, meanwhile, cheered the HELP Committee’s bill.

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, in a statement hailed Kennedy and the committee’s No. 2 Democrat, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd — who is managing the bill while Kennedy is treated for brain cancer — for their “courage, passion, and vision— and commended HELP Committee members from both sides of the aisle for including the public plan option.

“Senator Kennedy, Senator Dodd and HELP Committee members from both sides of the aisle have channeled their courage and passion into a vision of reform that provides Americans with more choices and more affordable healthcare options; including one guaranteed by the government that puts the good of the American people ahead of profits,— Stern’s statement added.

Charles Cote, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, said his organization was happy to see a placeholder in the bill to deal with creating a pathway toward follow-on or generic versions of biotech drugs.

“The key thing is how to pay for health care reform, and generic biologics are an important part of funding health care reform,— he said. “And we appreciate Sen. Kennedy and the committee’s recognition of that fact.—

What the bill doesn’t yet specify is how long brand-name companies would maintain market exclusivity before generic companies could make follow-on products. “They haven’t gotten into the details,— Cote said.

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