Obama: U.S. health care reform 'within our grasp'

GLENSIDE, Pa. —Stirring memories of his campaign for the White House, President Obama made a spirited appeal for passage of long-stalled health care changes Monday

"Let's seize reform. It's within our grasp," the president implored his audience at Arcadia University.

Obama's pitch was part denunciation of insurance companies —"they continue to ration care on the basis of who's sick and who's healthy," he said — and part criticism of his Republican critics. "You had 10 years. What happened? What were you doing?" he said.

Obama included an appeal to his audience — many of whom were students — to help in the same ways they might in a campaign. "So I need you to knock on doors. Talk to your neighbors. Pick up the phone," he urged them.

The two-step approach now being pursued by Democratic leaders in Congress calls for the House to approve a Senate-passed bill from last year, despite House Democrats' opposition to several of its provisions. Both houses then would follow by approving a companion measure to make changes in that first bill.

In general, Obama wants legislation to expand health care to many millions who lack it, with subsidies to defray the costs for lower income families as well as small businesses. In addition, he has called on Congress to ban insurance industry practices such as denial of coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

Last month, Obama outlined several provisions he wants included in the second bill, at least some of which appear likely to be incorporated.

Several officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a Senate-passed excise tax on high-cost insurance plans would be scaled back in deference to objections from labor unions. In another White House proposal, a Senate-passed provision to raise Medicare taxes on the wages of upper-income earners would probably be extended — possibly at a higher rate — to investment income such as interest and dividends as well.

The fix-it bill would also increase funds the Senate approved to defray the cost of premiums and out-of-pocket health care expenses for those at lower incomes who currently cannot afford health insurance. And it would gradually close a gap in coverage under the existing Medicare prescription drug program.

In a new change sought by House Democrats, the fix-it bill would require businesses to count part-time workers when calculating penalties for failing to provide health coverage for employees. Smaller businesses would be exempt.

Obama's speech on Monday drew fresh criticism.

"Americans don't want this bill. They're telling us to start over. The only people who don't seem to be getting the message are Democrat leaders in Washington," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, said insurance industry workers "do not deserve to be vilified for political purposes.... For every dollar spent on health care in America, less than one penny goes toward health plan profits. The focus needs to be on the other 99 cents."