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Obama Takes His Case to Congress, Nation on Healthcare Reform

Posted on 10 Sep 2009

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Attempting to reignite his campaign to overhaul the U.S. health-care system, President Barack Obama exhorted Congress to end its "bickering" and pass legislation, calling the status quo unacceptable.

During a 47-minute speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama focused mainly on familiar arguments, saying changes such as restrictions on insurers would offer Americans “more security and stability.” In one of the few new twists, he embraced a plan to tax insurers on the most-expensive policies.

The president struck a tone that was both conciliatory and unyielding, offering to hear ideas from both parties while saying he would waste no time on people who only want to kill the $900 billion plan. No Republican has supported any of the measures passed by four congressional panels.

“The politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road, to defer reform one more year, or one more election,” Obama said. “But that is not what the moment calls for. That’s not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it.”

Obama spoke before today’s planned release of new figures tracking the number of uninsured Americans, which in 2007 stood at 46 million. The legislation is designed to cover a greater number of those people while also reining in rising health-care costs that account for a sixth of the nation’s economy.

Republicans React

Through much of the speech, Republicans remained seated and quiet as Democrats cheered and gave the president standing ovations. At one point, Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, shouted “you lie” at Obama. Wilson later apologized to the White House.

Louisiana Representative Charles Boustany, a heart surgeon who gave the official Republican response, criticized Obama for supporting a government-run insurance option that would compete with private insurers. “We can do better, with a targeted approach that tackles the biggest problems,” Boustany said.

The Senate Finance Committee is still seeking a bipartisan compromise, though panel chairman Max Baucus yesterday said he would present legislation next week even if Republicans don’t support it.

“We’ve seen Washington at its best and at its worst,” Obama said of the health-care debate. He told lawmakers that failure isn’t an option and reminded them of the bipartisan work of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who led efforts to pass health-care legislation.

Medical Malpractice

As part of his bid to woo more Republicans, Obama said he’s pursuing a pilot project designed to prevent doctors from practicing “defensive medicine” by ordering unnecessary tests for fear of being sued. Curbing medical malpractice lawsuits is a leading goal of business groups that isn’t included in the congressional plans passed so far.

Obama also spent time addressing what he called “all the misinformation,” saying he realized that many Americans had grown nervous about the plan. Rumors that the government would set up panels that would decide who lived and died is “a lie, plain and simple,” he said to applause.

The president also said the proposals wouldn’t cover illegal immigrants, use federal dollars for abortions or lead to a government “takeover” of health care.

He said his plan would require coverage of preventive care and create a purchasing exchange to allow people to shop for cheaper insurance. He said insurers would compete in the exchange to gain access to millions of new customers; all Americans would be required to get insurance, just as they do to drive cars.

Funding Legislation

The estimated $900 billion cost of the legislation would be spread out over 10 years, and would be less than the amount spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said. He vowed again not to sign any measure that adds to the federal budget deficit.

The White House hasn’t said how it will fully pay for the legislation. Obama yesterday for the first time embraced a proposal to tax insurers on their most-expensive health-care plans, which administration officials say would contribute more than $100 billion toward the financing of the overhaul.

Earlier in the day, a senior White House official said two-thirds of the plan would be funded by savings from across the health-care industry, including from Medicare and Medicaid as well as from hospitals and drugmakers.

While the official promised to provide specific ways in which the White House envisioned raising revenue for the remaining $200 billion or so, aides last night declined to go any further.

Public Option

Obama said the goal of widening coverage and lowering health-care costs could be achieved with a government-run program that would compete with insurers such as Hartford, Connecticut-based Aetna Inc. He stopped short of insisting on that so-called public option.

“It is only one part of my plan, and shouldn’t be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles,” Obama said. “We should remain open to other ideas.”

Republicans oppose the public option, and the proposal has divided Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she can’t pass legislation without it because many members insist it’s the only way to provide affordable, universal insurance. Yet it’s opposed by members such as Arkansas Representative Mike Ross, the chief health negotiator for a group of self-described fiscally conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs.

Top Senate Democrats including Baucus say the public option can’t win passage in their chamber because of concern it will unfairly undercut the market for private insurers.

Obama called on the lawmakers to overcome their disagreements and pass the legislation.

“The time for bickering is over,” he said. “Now is the season for action.”