Health Care Progress Seen on Capitol Hill
Congress reported progress on legislation to overhaul the nation's health care Wednesday as President Barack Obama introduced a retooled message asserting his plan would protect Americans and limit insurers' power.
"We have a system today that works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn't always work well for you," Obama told more than 2,000 people in a North Carolina high school gymnasium. "What we need, and what we will have when we pass these reforms, are health insurance consumer protections to make sure that those who have insurance are treated fairly and insurance companies are held accountable."
Back in Washington, House lawmakers indicated they were moving ahead on their version of the health care legislation after leaders and fiscally conservative Democrats worked out a deal. Senators trying to reach a bipartisan compromise also indicated progress in paring the costs of the plan as they push for an agreement they hope will appeal to the political middle.
Four of the seven so-called Blue Dog Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they resolved their differences with Chairman Henry Waxman of California. The lawmakers also had been meeting with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
At the same time, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the Democrat leading the negotiations among three Democrats and three Republicans, said new estimates from the Congressional Budget Office show the plan that's taking shape would cover 95 percent of Americans by 2015, and cost about $900 billion over 10 years - under the unofficial $1 trillion target the White House has set.
As Congress continued to haggle over various bills on Capitol Hill, the president flew to North Carolina to emphasize consumer protections that he said would be in any bill he would sign. He was making the same pitch later in Virginia.
Among those protections: Insurers would be required to set annual caps on how much they can charge for out-of-pocket expenses, would have to fully cover routine tests to help prevent illness and would be required to renew any policy as long as the policyholder paid the premium in full. Insurers also would be barred from refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions, scaling back insurance for people who fall very ill, charging more for services based on gender or and placing limits on coverage. And, they wouldn't be able to deny children family coverage through age 26.
"Whether or not you have health insurance right now, the reforms we seek will bring stability and security that you don't have today - reforms that become more urgent and more urgent with each passing year," Obama said.
Greeted with cheers, he bounded onto a stage backed by four huge American flags, a scene reminiscent of last year's presidential campaign. The audience was friendly, its questions hardly critical. The White House said people signed up for a drawing to get tickets through a Web site and phone number.
The welcome was in contrast to criticism Obama encountered as his motorcade made its way from the airport to Needham B. Broughton High School. Thick groups of protesters held signs that said "Obamacare is Socialism," "Politicians + Health Care Disaster," and "Hands Off Our Health Care."
Once inside, Obama got hearty applause as he introduced each element in his introductory remarks.
As he has nearly every day for weeks, Obama countered concerns about costs to taxpayers and the scope of government in any overhaul, saying, "No one is talking about some government takeover of health care. ... These folks need to stop scaring everybody."
He cast the debate as a choice between doing something to bring down rising costs, provide better insurance and control exploding deficits - and doing nothing, which he said would have disastrous consequences by doubling health costs over the next decade, making millions more Americans uninsured and bankrupting federal and state governments.
Obama dismissed critics' claims that he was playing politics with health care, telling the crowd: "You know this isn't about politics. This is about people's lives. This is about people's businesses. This is about our future."
The president is seeking legislation to extend health insurance to millions who lack it, even as he is asking lawmakers to slow the growth in the skyrocketing cost of medical care overall. He retooled his pitch as Democrats in both houses struggled to show progress before lawmakers leave the Capitol for a monthlong vacation. In Washington, aides will spread the fresh message using e-mail and social networking sites.
Many, if not all, of the consumer protections the White House highlighted are included in legislation under discussion in both houses. But conservative-to-moderate Democrats are balking at the bills, making the legislative process move slower than the White House would like and presenting political challenges to the Democratic president.
To coax legislation from Congress, the president is making a major investment in his time and political capital.
On Tuesday, Baucus' group agreed tentatively on a plan to squeeze an additional $35 billion out of Medicare over the next decade and larger sums in the years beyond, according to congressional officials, a step toward Obama's goal of curbing the growth of health care spending.
Under the plan, an independent commission would be empowered to recommend changes in Medicare annually, to take effect automatically unless Congress enacted an alternative. In addition to saving money, the proposal is aimed at turning the program for those age 65 and over into one that more clearly rewards quality, officials said.
The commission would be required to recommend $35 billion in savings over a decade from Medicare. There was no immediate estimate on the longer-term effects of the provision, the topic of exhaustive discussion among Baucus' group. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss details of the private talks.
Associated Press Writers David Espo and Erica Werner contributed to this report.