- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pushed back against critics of his health care plan on Saturday with a stern warning that absent reform, costs will continue to rise and eventually devastate the U.S. economy.

The administration is trying to build momentum for the effort following a 14-9 vote this week by the Senate Finance Committee for legislation that would extend health care to millions of people who now aren’t covered by any insurance plan.

Democrats hailed the vote as a victory, in part because the bill was supported by a Republican, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe. But the legislation faces considerable opposition with the health insurance industry, labor unions and large business organizations lining up against it for different reasons.

“The history is clear: For decades rising health care costs have unleashed havoc on families, businesses and the economy,” the president said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address. “And for decades, whenever we have tried to reform the system, the insurance companies have done everything in their considerable power to stop us.”

Earlier this week, the health insurance industry released a study concluding that the Finance Committee bill — one of five competing House and Senate health care measures — would raise premiums significantly for millions of people who already have health coverage. The report drew intense criticism from the White House, Democrats in Congress and other advocates of the bill.

Obama took aim at the report in his speech, contending that the health insurance industry was “filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest ads,” sending money and lobbyists to Capitol Hill and paying for studies “designed to mislead the American people.”

In general, the bills moving through Congress would require most Americans to buy insurance, provide federal subsidies to help lower-income people afford coverage and help small businesses defray the cost of extending coverage to their workers.

The measures would bar insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions and limit their ability to charge higher premiums based on age or family size. Expanded coverage would be paid for by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from future Medicare payments to health care providers. Medicare is the government-run program that provides health care coverage to the elderly.

The House and Senate bills also envision higher taxes — an income tax surcharge on million-dollar wage-earners in the case of the House and a new excise levy on insurance companies selling high-cost policies in the case of the Senate Finance Committee bill.

Republican opponents of the bills say the increased cost will be passed on to patients, cause further job losses and give the government more say in who gets medical care and what kind.

“Americans inherently know government interference drives costs up, not down,” Rep. Kevin Brady said in the Republican Party’s weekly message. “The massive health care plans being crafted behind closed doors in Washington will ultimately allow the government to decide what doctors we can see, what treatments the government thinks you deserve and what medicines you can receive.”

Obama contends the price of not acting will be too high.

He said health care premiums have doubled in the past decade, and out-of-pocket costs have grown by one-third. Unless the system is overhauled as he has suggested, rising costs will mean lower salaries and higher unemployment for workers, lower profits for businesses and larger numbers of people going without insurance, the president said.

“It is no exaggeration to say that unless we act, these costs will devastate the U.S. economy,” Obama said.

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