WASHINGTON — The health care reform bill passed by US senators Thursday tramples on women's abortion rights and leeches off working Americans while enriching the insurance industry and changing little, critics said.


The National Organization for Women (NOW) blasted the measure as a "disappointing move that sets women's reproductive rights back" after Democratic senators included compromise language on abortion coverage to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome parliamentary delaying tactics.

"When a small group of men sets out to determine what rights women can exercise over their own bodies, it's sexism, not health care," NOW said in a statement.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which groups 57 national and international labor unions, said the Senate bill "doesn't live up to the kind of reform we need."

Key shortcomings of the bill are that it would be "paid for by a tax on working families' health benefits" and fails to provide a public health insurance option, "which would control costs by giving insurance companies real competition," the AFL-CIO said.

The House of Representatives version, which passed last month, does include a government-backed "public option" to compete with private insurers but that provision was stripped from the Senate bill.

Both versions, which differ significantly, must now be merged before they can be sent to President Barack Obama's desk to be signed into law. Republicans have vowed to make sure that does not happen.

The Senate bill did have its supporters, including the American Medical Association (AMA), which hailed it for "expanding coverage to millions of Americans and strengthening the private insurance market to better serve the patients who rely on it."

Powerful seniors' lobby group the AARP thanked the Senate for passing the bill, which it said would "ensure millions more Americans can get affordable health coverage and sharply curtail discriminatory insurance company practices that keep those most in need out of the system."

But Bruce Josten of the US Chamber of Commerce slammed the Senate bill, saying it was "not reform" and would result in "crippling new taxes and hurt our ability to create jobs at the worst possible time for the economy."

He also complained that the business community was not included in the debate in Congress to reform health care.

Neither were doctors, said Merri Ferrell, who several years ago found herself at the receiving end of medical malpractice and the insurance industry's barbs.

"I never heard a doctor speak during the debate. They keep calling it health care reform but it seems to me that it's health care insurance restructuring," said 55-year-old Ferrell.

"Everyone seems to think insurance is the best way to get good health care, but I think it's the heart of the problem.

"We should cut out having to pay four, five, six people in the front office of doctors' practices to process insurance papers.

"I'd rather the doctor should put the money that those front-office people are paid in his pocket and be a better surgeon or physician -- or spend 20 minutes with me instead of eight," she said.

Ferrell's insurance company was the first to contact her in 2002 after she was released from a hospital in New York where she had gone to have uterine fibroids removed, only to be told by a nurse when she came to after surgery that she had been given a hysterectomy instead, against her wishes.

"Not only was everything gone, but my lungs had collapsed during the operation. So they kept me in the hospital for a few days to make sure my lungs reinflated," Ferrell told AFP.

"The first piece of mail I got when I got home was from my insurance company. They didn't wish me well -- they were asking why I had stayed an extra day at the hospital and I had to justify it or they would charge me some sort of figure that made me faint."