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Obama Presses New Health Care Proposal

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media in the briefing room of the White House February 9, 2010 in Washington, DC.
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Above: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media in the briefing room of the White House February 9, 2010 in Washington, DC.

President Obama on Monday made a last-ditch effort to salvage his administration's signature issue, unveiling a health care overhaul proposal that would extend insurance coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans and create a government body to monitor jaw-dropping rate increases.

With an eye toward the massive budget deficit, the $950 billion plan contains enough cost-cutting measures and increases in employer and patient responsibility payments to pay for itself, White House officials said. It also promises to reduce the deficit by $100 billion over the next 10 years and $1 trillion over the following decade.

Dan Pfeiffer, White House Communications director, said the measure is a modified version of bills passed by the House and the Senate last year, and it incorporates changes suggested by Republican leaders in the intervening weeks.

The president decided to unveil the measure in advance of Thursday's televised, bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders to give Republicans — and the public — a chance to review it. The plan was posted on the White House Web site Monday morning.

"We took our best shot at bridging the differences," Pfeiffer said during a conference call with reporters. "It is our hope the Republicans will come together around their plan and post that online prior to the meeting so that the American people have a chance to look at it, analyze it and be thoroughly informed heading into this meeting."

Obama's plan would create a federal Health Insurance Rate Authority that would have the power to reject or modify premium increases — an idea bolstered by whopping insurance rate hikes in many states. Earlier this month, Anthem Blue Cross of California announced premiums for some clients would increase from 25 to 39 percent.

The president hammered on the need for the overhaul during his weekly radio address on Saturday, ticking off states where insurance companies have announced "jaw-dropping" rate hikes for some people in recent weeks — California; Kansas 10 to 20 percent; Michigan 22 percent; Maine 23 percent.

"The bottom line is that the status quo is good for the insurance industry and bad for America," Obama said, citing record profits of more than $12 billion for the five biggest insurance companies.

The measure also:

— Requires most Americans to have health insurance, although it does include federal subsidies to help low-income people afford the premiums.

— Creates competitive insurance markets.

— Closes the Medicare prescription drug "doughnut hole" coverage gap.

— Preserves a tax on so-called "Cadillac" health care plans, but exempts more of them and phases the tax in more slowly.

— Provides more subsidies for small businesses and middle-class workers to make insurance premiums more affordable.

— Prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

— Includes restrictions on federal funding for abortion.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans gave the plan a thumbs down. "The president has crippled the credibility of this week's summit by proposing the same massive government takeover of health care based on a partisan bill the American people have already rejected," said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Since his election, Obama has pushed hard for an overhaul of the health care system. Democrats pushed bills through the Democratic Party-controlled House and Senate, despite strong opposition from Republicans. The president and congressional Democrats were on track to remake system after a half-century of unsuccessful attempts by scores of politicians until Republican Scott Brown stunned Washington with an upset win in the Massachusetts Senate race, denying Democrats their 60-seat majority and reversing momentum.

On Monday, the White House didn't rule out forcing the plan through the Senate without Republican support through a process called reconciliation — which would require only a simple majority of 51 votes to pass the Senate.

"One thing I want to be very clear about is, the president expects and believes the American people deserve an up-or-down vote on health reform. And our proposal is designed to give ourselves maximum flexibility, to ensure that we can get an up-or-down vote, if the opposition decides to take the extraordinary step of filibustering health reform," Pfeiffer said.

Obama urged members of both parties to come to the meeting in good faith. He said the upcoming meeting "is our chance to finally reform our health insurance system so it works for families and small businesses. It's our chance to finally give Americans the peace of mind of knowing that they'll be able to have affordable coverage when they need it most."

With reporting by NPR's Julie Rovner and The Associated Press

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