WASHINGTON BUREAU — There is a “very strong possibility” a health reform bill will pass Congress this year, according to a lobbyist who once worked as a health aide in the office of Sen. Charles Grassley.

Colette Desmarais, a principal at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc., Washington, a lobbying firm, said today at a Medicare conference organized by America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington, that she believes Grassley, R-Iowa, will work to get a health reform bill through the Senate Finance Committee.

Grassley is the highest-ranking Republican member of the committee.

Desmarais said the final health reform bill will look more like the draft developed on the “Senate side” — without a public option — than the more liberal version now being developed in the House.

The House “tri-committee” health reform proposal is more a “wish list” put together by “left-leaning” interests than a viable legislation proposal, Desmarais said.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to begin work on the final language of its health bill next Monday.

Revisions of the working draft released last week by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, began circulating this weekend/ The last draft, the so-called “committee print,” will likely be released by Wednesday in order to satisfy committee rules, Desmarais said.

A committee print, usually drafted by the chairman of a committee, is the document members of a committee use when they start working on legislation.

Because Medicare Advantage support is “far stronger” in the Senate than in the House, the final Medicare Advantage cuts will be much less than the $180 billion over 10 years proposed by the House, Desmarais said.

Another AHIP conference speaker, Duane Wright, a vice president at the Glover Park Group L.L.C., Washington, predicted that politics will force passage of health reform legislation by December, before the 2010 congressional election cycle begins in earnest.

The legislation will not include a public option, and the White House will put pressure on liberal members of the House to pass “not a perfect bill, but a momentous step forward,” Wright predicted.

Even if the 2010 election were not starting soon, Congress would be forced to act this year “because the longer bill is out there, the more difficult it will become to pass it,” Wright said.

Desmarais joined Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti in 2007, after serving as Grassley’s top health policy aide for 3 years.

During that period, she helped draft the bill provisions that created the Medicare prescription drug program and the Medicare Advantage program.

Wright worked for 4 years for Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and he also worked for former Sen. Robert Graham, D-Fla.

Both also have worked for AHIP.

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