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Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California signs the Senate Health Reform bill on Monday on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo by Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press

HELENA - Montana's Sen. Max Baucus Monday hailed the passage of a national health reform bill he helped write as "the biggest social legislation in the history of America," because of its broad goal of extending health coverage to everyone.

"I'm very proud of our country and of Congress, for stepping up and doing what's right," he said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "I'm very pleased that we had a large part in getting this passed."

The House on Sunday passed the major health reform bill, which came out of the Senate in December, and some accompanying measures.

Baucus, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he expects President Barack Obama to sign the main bill into law Tuesday and the Senate to pass the other smaller cleanup measures later this week.

"We have to go through a few hoops and hurdles over here, but it's a done deal," he said. "It's all (going to) pass."

Montana's other U.S. senator, Democrat Jon Tester, said the reform package is needed to help health coverage become affordable for everyone, preserve Medicare and help reduce the national debt over time.

"I thought it was a good bill when it passed the Senate and I still think that," he said. "It will stop this broken health care system that is breaking families and breaking the country. ... We've got folks out there who can't afford to get sick."

Montana's only congressman, Republican Denny Rehberg, voted against the bill and said Democrats "failed to heed the public outcry against this bill."

"I support true reform that would lower the cost of health care," he said in a statement Sunday evening. "Merely shifting the cost from the patient to the taxpayer isn't a solution; they're the same person."

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Many of the reform package's key elements don't take effect until 2014, such as requirements that individuals have or buy health insurance, subsidies to help some families pay for that insurance, health insurance market reforms, and expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal coverage plan for the poor.

But changes on tap this year include a government-funded high-risk pool for people who've been denied coverage because of a health condition, tax credits to help small businesses buy coverage for employees, and requirements that family polices cover children up to age 26.

The bill also still includes a provision that will allow residents of Libby - or any place with a designated public health emergency - to get medical screening and other services covered by Medicare.

Under a 30-year-old law, Libby has been the only health emergency site declared; its contamination came from asbestos released by the former W.R. Grace vermiculite mine.

"I think it's only fair that people who are so adversely affected by asbestos should receive some assistance where the administration declares that area to be a public health emergency," Baucus said.

Baucus also said he thinks the package of reform bills will work to control health care costs, particularly with its moves toward revising how physicians, hospitals

and other providers are paid.

"The game-changer here, although it will take some time, is that the country ... will no longer pay based on the quantity of care, but pay on the basis of quality," he said. "That will root out a lot of waste."

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