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Adviser: Obama taking wait-and-see approach to health care reform bill

Monday, October 19, 2009

(Photo)
David Axelrod
WASHINGTON -- The White House will not commit to health care legislation that would cap insurance premiums or tax benefits, taking a wait-and-see approach as congressional negotiators seek a deal, advisers said Sunday.

President Barack Obama will not demand that a final bill include a government-run plan as a way of driving down costs through competition, though that's his preference, they said.

"There will be compromise. There will be legislation, and it will achieve our goals: helping people who have insurance get more security, more accountability for the insurance industry, helping people who don't have insurance get insurance they can afford, and lowering the overall cost of the system," aide David Axelrod said.

Asked on ABC's "This Week" if Obama would sign a bill that ended the antitrust exemption for the insurance industry and allow caps on premiums, Axelrod said, "We'll see what Congress does."

A 1945 law lets states regulate insurers without federal interference.

Axelrod was similarly noncommittal when pressed about whether Obama would support taxing insurance benefits, a proposal that has brought criticism from labor unions and others. "I think that this thing is going to be adjusted as we go along," he said, "so let's see what the final proposal says before we talk about what the president will or won't sign."

The White House and lawmakers are trying to blend five House and Senate committee versions of health care legislation into a bill that will pass both houses. Near unanimous Republican opposition is expected.

House Democrats are insisting on a government-run plan, known as a public option. In the Senate, Republicans and some Democrats oppose the measure, meaning inclusion of the public option would foreclose winning the 60 votes needed to advance a bill.

Obama "will obviously weigh in when it's important to weigh in" on the possibility of a public option, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said. Added Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett: "He's not demanding that it's in there. He think it's the best possible choice."

The president promoted his health care initiative Saturday in his weekly radio and online address and challenged policy makers to resist special interests. He accused the insurance industry of "filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest ads" and paying for studies "designed to mislead the American people."

Jarrett said the president's criticism was a sign of his frustration with the insurance industry's efforts to "tank this bill."

A study commissioned by the industry reported that the Democrats' health care effort would drive up premiums for the insured, a conclusion faulted for taking a decidedly narrow view of legislation. The industry also has been running an ad that could easily be mistaken as asserting that basic Medicare coverage is at risk.

"I think that the message that we've seen from the president and the huge momentum that is moving through Congress shows that the American people are ready for health care reform," Jarrett said. "And they're ready for it this year, and nothing's going to stop that."

The bill approved last week by the Senate Finance Committee drew the only Republican vote yet cast with Democrats on the health care overhaul. Even then, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, did not commit to supporting the final version of the bill.

Labor groups say plans to finance health care reform by taxing insurance companies would end up costing middle-income Americans because the industry would simply pass along the taxes with higher premiums.

Emanuel, while not directly disputing that claim, insisted Sunday that the Senate Finance Committee bill "hits the insurance companies and the high expansive and expensive plans."

"One of the most effective ways of putting downward pressure on health care premium increases is a disincentive to ever-expansive and expensive plans," Emanuel said. "I find it ironic because some of the critics on the right were the people that called for, in fact, eliminating the tax exclusion. Now they've become the biggest defenders."

Emanuel spoke on CNN's "State of the Union" and CBS' "Face the Nation" while Jarrett appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."


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