A few big things have happened today regarding health care reform.

First, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) has released a health care proposal that will cover 97 percent of Americans, will cost $600 billion, and will include a public option.

Democrats on a key Senate Committee outlined a revised and far less costly health care plan Wednesday night that includes a government-run insurance option and an annual fee on employers who do not offer coverage to their workers.

The plan carries a 10-year price tag of slightly over $600 billion, and would lead toward an estimated 97 percent of all Americans having coverage, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Chris Dodd said in a letter to other members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The AP obtained a copy.

By contrast, an earlier, incomplete proposal carried a price tag of roughly $1 trillion and would have left millions uninsured, CBO analysts said in mid-June.

The letter indicated the cost and coverage improvements resulted from two changes. The first calls for a government-run health insurance option to compete with private coverage plans, an option that has drawn intense opposition from Republicans.

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Additionally, the revised proposal calls for a $750 annual fee on employers for each full-time worker not offered coverage through their job. The fee would be set at $375 for part-time workers. Companies with fewer than 25 employees would be exempt. The fee was forecast to generate $52 billion over 10 years, money the government would use to help provide subsidies to those who cannot afford insurance.

This is huge, as Jed Lewison reports at Daily Kos, because it takes away the scare tactics Republicans and most conservative Democrats have been fanning in this debate. No one can claim now that the public option costs too much, and in addition, the effectiveness of such a policy can’t be argued.

The second thing to happen is the American Medical Association announcing its support for a public option, which, in May, it had opposed.

Dr. J. James Rohack told CNN that the AMA supports an “American model” that includes both “a private system and a public system, working together.”

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“The AMA does not believe that creating a public health insurance option … is the best way to expand health insurance coverage and lower costs across the health care system,” the organization wrote, explaining that a public insurance plan could lead to “an explosion of costs that would need to be absorbed by taxpayers.”

Rohack, who recently became AMA president, suggested Wednesday that the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program available to Congress members and other federal employees could be expanded as a public option. That would avoid having to create a new program from scratch, he said.

“If it’s good enough for Congress, why shouldn’t it be good enough for individuals who don’t have health insurance provided by their employers?” Rohack said.

These two events, along with the president’s town-hall meetings, should be enough to create some positive momentum toward getting something passed. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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