President wants federal oversight of insurers

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Published: February 22,2010

Tags: healthcare, healthcare reform, insurance

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is making a fresh attempt to rescue his health care overhaul by proposing a measure that would allow the government to deny or roll back egregious insurance premium increases that infuriate consumers.

Coming just days before a White House health care summit with congressional leaders of both parties, Obama’s new legislative proposal, which will be unveiled later Monday, likely represents the president’s last chance to salvage his signature issue.

The proposal would give the federal Health and Human Services Department — in conjunction with state authorities — the power to deny substantial premium increases, limit them, or demand rebates for consumers, a White House official said on condition of anonymity because details have not yet been officially released.

The United States is the only developed nation that does not have a comprehensive national health care plan for all its citizens. Many people rely on private insurance plans.

With this new initiative, the U.S. administration seems ironically to be playing on the same kind of public skepticism that has endangered the medical care system remake all along. Health care reform was a front-burner issue for Obama and majority Democrats in Congress until a little known Republican, Scott Brown, shocked the political establishment last month by defeating Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election to choose a successor for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Recent insurance premium hikes of as much as 39 percent sought by Anthem Blue Cross in California have given Obama a new argument for his health care reforms, now stalled in Congress.

The proposal for tighter oversight of private insurers, modeled on legislation proposed by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, will be part of a sweeping overhaul plan which the White House plans to post on its Web site at 10 a.m. (1500 GMT) Monday, before a health care summit with congressional leaders of both parties on Thursday.

The broader plan, likely to be opposed by the Republicans, is expected to require most Americans to carry health insurance coverage, with federal subsidies to help many afford the premiums. Hewing close to a stalled Senate bill, it would bar insurance companies from denying coverage to people with medical problems or charging them more. The expected price tag is around $1 trillion over 10 years.

The summit at Blair House, the White House guest residence, will be televised live on C-SPAN’s unedited TV feed and perhaps on cable news networks. It represents a risky and unusual gamble by the administration that Obama can save his embattled overhaul through persuasion — on live TV.

It was forced on the administration by the Senate special election victory of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown in January. He captured the seat long held by Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, a lifelong champion of health care reform, who died last year. Brown’s victory reduced the Democrats’ majority in the Senate to 59 votes, one shy of the number needed to knock down Republican delaying tactics.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday he would participate, but insisted Obama and congressional Democrats would be wrong to push the bills they wrote in the House and Senate.

“The fundamental point I want to make is the arrogance of all of this. You know, they are saying: ‘Ignore the wishes of the American people. We know more about this than you do. And we’re going to jam it down your throats no matter what.’ That is why the public is so angry at this Congress and this administration over this issue,” McConnell said.

Thursday’s meeting takes place nearly a year after Obama launched his drive to remake health care — a Democratic agenda priority for decades — at an earlier summit he infused with a bipartisan spirit. The president will point out that Republicans have supported individual elements of the Democratic bills.

Under the Obama plan, regulators would create a competitive marketplace for small businesses and people buying their own coverage. The plan would be paid for with a mix of Medicare cuts and tax increases. It would also strip out special Medicaid deals for certain states, while moving to close the Medicare prescription coverage gap and making newly available coverage for working families more affordable.

About 50 million of America’s 300 million people are without health insurance. The government provides Medicaid and Medicare coverage for the poor and elderly, but most Americans rely on private insurance, usually received through their employers. However, not all employers provide insurance and not everyone can afford to buy it on their own. With unemployment rising, many Americans are losing their health insurance when they lose their jobs.

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