December 3, 2009- WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate backed a plan on Thursday to make it easier for women to get preventive health screenings such as mammograms as it cast its first votes on a sweeping healthcare overhaul.
On the fourth day of a sometimes bitter debate, the Senate voted 61-39 for an amendment to improve access to women's screenings for diseases like cancer and diabetes by eliminating insurance co-pays and deductibles for them.
The move follows last month's controversy over federal task force recommendations that women delay regular mammograms for breast cancer and from a doctor's group that women delay pap smears for cervical cancer.
"This amendment makes sure that the insurance companies must cover the basic preventive care that women need at no cost," said Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, sponsor of the amendment.
On a 58-42 vote, Democrats also backed the bill's cuts of more than $400 billion in the Medicare health program for the elderly. Republicans said the cuts would mean fewer benefits for seniors, but Democrats said they would eliminate waste and improve the program's fiscal health.
The votes broke a two-day Senate stalemate that had stalled progress on the healthcare bill, President Barack Obama's top domestic priority. On Wednesday night, party leaders finally agreed on a timeline for the votes.
Senate Democratic leaders have vowed to pass the bill by the end of December but Republicans want to prolong the debate into the 2010 campaign season in hopes public opposition will grow.
The Senate bill is designed to rein in costs, expand coverage to about 30 million uninsured Americans and halt insurance practices such as denying coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions.
The House of Representatives passed its version of the overhaul last month. If the Senate passes a bill, the two versions will have to be reconciled in January and passed again by each chamber before being sent to Obama for his signature.
National polls show opinion is divided on the overhaul.