WASHINGTON — Rep. William L. Owens plans to vote today in favor of the $940 billion health insurance reform package, a decision he called "one of the most important choices of my lifetime."
In siding with the Democratic leadership and President Obama on one the most sweeping pieces of federal legislation in years, Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said the bill would avert skyrocketing health care costs and the economic pain it will continue to cause the country, which backers of reform say is certain to occur if Congress does not act.
Opponents, mainly Republicans, used precisely the opposite argument — that the bill is far too costly and does not do enough to fight what they believe is the main culprit in climbing health care costs, growing monetary damage awards in malpractice lawsuits. They downplayed or cast doubt on the nonpartisan congressional report that suggested the bill would, in the long term, reduce the federal deficit.
"The math is sound on this bill," Mr. Owens said in a statement. "Currently, our nation spends $45 billion annually in uncompensated care alone. It is estimated that premium costs will go up at least another $45 billion, costing our economy at least $90 billion annually. In short, while Americans spend almost $2.5 trillion annually on health care, this legislation makes fiscal sense."
Mr. Owens announced his decision as the House met for a rare Saturday session and the House Rules Committee, chaired by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, took up the reconciliation bill that modifies the Senate version of the reform package, in order to reach the final product. The committee meeting became the setting for much of the day's tension as Republicans sought every opportunity to derail the bill through amendments in advance of today's final vote.
Mr. Owens sought to dispel any notion that his vote in favor was a foregone conclusion, although he had supported an earlier version and campaigned in part on a pledge to push health care reform, generally.
He said he studied not only the legislation at hand but a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that warned about the fast-rising cost of health care if reform is not enacted soon. In a conference call with reporters, he said he also met with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., one of the bill's chief critics, to gain perspective from the other side.
The study Mr. Owens cited — and which he had his office distribute to reporters two days before he announced his vote — warned of serious economic pain if the country's health care costs are not contained.
"It's not just a theoretical risk," Mr. Owens told reporters Saturday.
In contrast, he said, the reform bill would be a "tremendously positive step" in the delivery of health care to the north country.
Following the announcement, Mr. Owens's office released a list of more than 325 organizations supporting the legislation, including the American Medical Association, AARP, the Catholic Health Association, Consumers Union and several labor organizations.
Citizen Action of New York praised his decision, saying the measure will "finally put an end" to some 45,000 deaths caused each year by insufficient health insurance coverage.
And it cited an analysis by Health Care for America Now that suggested north country hospitals could save $49.3 million a year by reducing the cost of treating people without insurance.
The region's hospitals spend about $98.9 million on uncompensated care annually, absorbing the cost or passing it along to other patients indirectly.
"Congressman Owens has chosen to be on the side of the people of his district by siding with us, instead of siding with big insurance," said Citizen Action of New York Executive Director Karen Sharff.
But Mr. Owens faced plenty of criticism as well, in a hint of what awaits him in his quest for re-election.
One of Mr. Owens's declared Republican opponents in the fall, Matthew Doheny, said the congressman "failed his constituents" by supporting the measure.
Mr. Doheny said the bill would add trillions of dollars to the deficit, despite the CBO findings. "Even worse, this legislation would increase premiums and taxes for those who have health insurance, while shortchanging payments to doctors and hospitals," he said.
And, echoing a common Republican criticism, Mr. Doheny blamed climbing health care costs on lawsuits that increase malpractice insurance rates and force unnecessary medical tests, and criticized the bill for not addressing "frivolous and outrageous" litigation through tort reform.
Mr. Owens said the substance of the bill, not political pressure, shaped his decision. Still, he was the subject of considerable attention, as were a handful of other lawmakers who remained undecided through the week.
On Thursday night, he took a call from president Obama, and on Friday he was summoned to meet with house speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Mr. Obama asked only how Mr. Owens was coming to his decision, the congressman said. And although he told the congressman he would like him to support the bill, he also said he could not ask Mr. Owens to do any more than he was doing to make up his mind.
"He didn't pressure me," Mr. Owens said.
The Working Families Party, which vowed not to support any candidate who votes against the plan, noted Mr. Owens's decision — as it did the "no" vote announced by Rep. Michael A. Arcuri, D-Utica. The group said it was already working to recruit a pro-reform challenger to Mr. Arcuri, who already appears vulnerable to a Republican challenge.
But another of Mr. Owens's upstate colleagues, Rep. Scott Murphy, D-Glens Falls, said he would also vote yes.
In his conference call with reporters, Mr. Owens acknowledged that his vote could carry political consequences.
"It would be foolish to say this would not have some political implication to it," Mr. Owens said, but he added, "That was not on my mind in making this decision."