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Updated: October 17, 2009 22:16 IST

Obama praises Senate committee’s health care vote

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US President Barack Obama addresses a conference in Texas on Friday. He praised the Senate committee’s health care vote on Saturday. Photo: AP
US President Barack Obama addresses a conference in Texas on Friday. He praised the Senate committee’s health care vote on Saturday. Photo: AP

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 its top domestic priority 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, labour 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, congressional Democrats and other advocates of the bill who deemed the study a last-ditch effort to sway public opinion against the White House-backed measure.

Obama said he would not abide “those who would bend the truth or break it to score political points and stop our progress as a country.” He accused the industry of “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.”

The bills moving through Congress generally 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 insurers 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. Higher taxes also are included in the bills. Medicare is the government-run programme 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 say the bills will increase costs for patients, further job losses and give the government more of a say in who gets medical care, and what kind.

“Americans inherently know government interference drives costs up, not down,” Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, said in the Republicans’ 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 contended the price of not acting will be a devastated U.S. economy because rising health care costs will mean lower salaries and higher unemployment, lower profits and larger numbers of people going without insurance.

Obama said overhauling the system will provide the change voters sought when they went to the polls last November.

“But it also now represents something more: whether or not we as a nation are capable of tackling our toughest challenges; if we can serve the national interest despite the unrelenting efforts of the special interests; if we can still do big things in America,” he said.

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