President Barack Obama told Congress Wednesday to end its political bickering and move quickly on a broad healthcare overhaul that would dramatically transform the U.S. health system and insurance market.
In a sometimes emotional speech, Obama said lawmakers were closer than ever to enacting healthcare reform and spelled out proposals to improve conditions for those with insurance and expand the choices for 46 million uninsured Americans, including a controversial government-run “public option.”
He also sharply rebuked critics, accusing them of substituting scare tactics for honest debate by pushing false ideas like the charge that “death panels” would decide treatment for the elderly.
“I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it,” he told a joint session of Congress and a national television audience. “If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out.”
Democrats, who have struggled for decades to enact healthcare reforms, gave Obama frequent standing ovations while Republicans murmured unhappily at times and held aloft copies of a Republican-sponsored healthcare bill.
Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” when Obama said his plan would not insure illegal immigrants.
Republicans also laughed loudly when Obama said “there remain some significant details to be ironed out.”
Obama hoped the speech would rejuvenate his flagging push for an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system and reclaim control of a debate that has bogged down in Congress amid rising public skepticism.
He said the overhaul would cut costs, improve care and regulate insurers to help protect consumers while expanding coverage. He repeated his pledge that the proposal, which would cost $900 billion over 10 years, would not increase the budget deficit.
As promised, he spelled out the concepts he wanted in any final bill passed by Congress, including affordable coverage for all Americans and creation of an insurance exchange where individuals and small businesses could shop for policies.
He reiterated his support for a government-run insurance plan — the so-called “public option” — that has drawn strong opposition from critics who say it would harm insurance companies and amount to a government takeover of the industry.
But he was clear that the lack of a public option in any final bill would not be a deal-breaker, and he promised to entertain Republican ideas to foster more competition and reduce costs.
“The public option is only a means to that end — and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal,” he said.
CLASH ON PUBLIC OPTION
In the Senate, months of bipartisan Finance Committee talks by the so-called “Gang of Six” negotiators moved into the final stages earlier in the day as the panel’s Democratic chairman, Max Baucus, said it was time to proceed with or without Republicans.
Baucus told reporters he would push ahead with a bill next week modeled after proposals he distributed recently to members. That plan would levy a fee on insurers to help pay for coverage but would not include a government-run option, which he said “cannot pass the Senate.”
Baucus’s plan would tax insurance companies on their most expensive healthcare policies and offer tax credits to individuals and families to help offset the cost of premiums.
Three committees in the House and one other Senate panel have completed work on a healthcare bill, leaving the Senate Finance Committee as the final hurdle before each chamber takes up the issue.
Republicans have balked at the total cost, questioned Obama’s pledge not to increase government debt and called some of the proposals a first step to a government takeover of healthcare.
Afterwards, few minds seemed to have been changed by the speech.
“When it comes to health care, Americans don’t want the government to tear down the system we have and build an even bigger, government-run system that adds massive spending and debt,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said.
Jay Timmons, the executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said he was concerned that many of the proposals “will increase costs and threaten economic recovery.”
In a bid to win Republican support, Obama proposed a series of state demonstration projects on medical malpractice reform, a long-sought goal of Republicans. He also endorsed a proposal from Republican presidential foe John McCain for an insurance pool for high-risk consumers.
Obama said he would prohibit insurers from dropping coverage for sick patients and capping coverage in a year or lifetime, would place a limit on out-of-pocket expenses, require insurers to cover routine check-ups and tax the most expensive insurance plans.
He said millions of uninsured Americans were living one illness away from bankruptcy, and others could not get insurance because of pre-existing conditions. He promised tax credits for individuals who cannot afford coverage.
“We are the only advanced democracy on Earth — the only wealthy nation — that allows such hardships for millions of its people,” he said.
Reducing waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid — the healthcare plans for the elderly and poor — would pay for most of the plan, he said, with the rest coming from a fee on insurers who would benefit from tens of millions of new customers.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Steve Holland, Susan Cornwell, Donna Smith, Thomas Ferraro, Jeff Mason, Ross Colvin; editing by Jackie Frank)