Local Politics

Obama pledges consumer protections

As the president spoke at a town hall meeting in Raleigh Wednesday, House lawmakers indicated they are moving ahead on their version of health care legislation.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Congress reported progress on legislation to overhaul the nation's health care Wednesday as President Barack Obama introduced a retooled message asserting his plan would protect Americans and limit insurers' power.

"We have a system today that works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn't always work well for you," Obama told more than 2,000 people at Broughton High School in Raleigh.

"What we need, and what we will have when we pass these reforms, are health insurance consumer protections to make sure that those who have insurance are treated fairly and insurance companies are held accountable."

An estimated 1.8 million residents – 21 percent of the population – have no health care in North Carolina, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. For those who have coverage, health insurance premiums have increased 75 percent from 2000 to 2007.

In Wake County, about 110,000 residents are uninsured, Penny Washington, chief executive officer of Wake Health Services, a community health center that serves a vast majority of patients on Medicare and Medicaid.

"As the numbers continue to rise, we're in the situation where more and more people are waiting until they have an emergency situation and then going to the emergency room, which is so much more expensive," Washington said.

The longer lawmakers wait, she said, the higher the number of uninsured in Wake County will be.

Obama pledged that the health care legislation he is seeking will bar insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions and include numerous provisions to hold down the cost of care for consumers.

Opponents of the plan, including conservative political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, support free-market health care delivery in contrast to what they worry would be too much government involvement in the industry.

A government-first mentality that sacrifices, not just our freedoms but our lives – it has no place in the United States of America," Americans for Prosperity state director Dallas Woodhouse said Wednesday at a rally at the North Raleigh Hilton.

The group plans to take its message of free-market health care across the state in the coming days.

"No one is talking about some government takeover of health care," Obama said. "Under the reform I’ve proposed, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan."

"And if you’re one of the 46 million Americans who don’t have coverage today, you will finally be able to get quality, affordable coverage," he said."

Insurance companies would have to obey limits on the out-of-pocket costs they could demand, and would not be permitted to charge co-pays or other fees for preventive care such as checkups or mammograms.

Children would remain eligible for family coverage through age 26, rather than the current 23, a step that would reduce the number of young uninsured adults.

"Whether or not you have health insurance right now, the reforms we seek will bring stability and security that you don’t have today – reforms that become more urgent and more urgent with each passing year," Obama said.

"I applaud the president for prioritizing health care and working with Congress to bring about change," said Gov. Bev Perdue, who was among state officials present Wednesday.

"When I spoke to President Obama this morning, I told him I believe strongly that reform must take place at the federal level. We have innovative solutions to providing care in North Carolina, and we have excellent providers, but our finances are stretched to the limit," she added. "We must ensure that the financial burden of a new system cannot fall to the states."

Back in Washington, House lawmakers indicated they were moving ahead on their version of the health care legislation after leaders and fiscally conservative Democrats worked out a deal.

Senators trying to reach a bipartisan compromise also indicated progress in paring the costs of the plan as they push for an agreement they hope will appeal to the political middle.

Four of the seven so-called Blue Dog Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they resolved their differences with Chairman Henry Waxman of California. The lawmakers also had been meeting with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

At the same time, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the Democrat leading the negotiations among three Democrats and three Republicans, said new estimates from the Congressional Budget Office show the plan that's taking shape would cover 95 percent of Americans by 2015, and cost about $900 billion over 10 years – under the unofficial $1 trillion target the White House has set.

Many, if not all, of the consumer protections Obama highlighted are included in legislation under discussion in both chambers.

But conservative-to-moderate Democrats have concerns about the cost to taxpayers and government's reach, making the legislative process move slower than the White House would like and presenting political challenges to the Democratic president.

Under the plan, an independent commission would be empowered to recommend changes in Medicare annually, to take effect automatically unless Congress enacted an alternative.

In addition to saving money, the proposal is aimed at turning the program for those age 65 and over into one that more clearly rewards quality, officials said.

The commission would be required to recommend $35 billion in savings over a decade from Medicare. There was no immediate estimate on the longer-term effects of the provision, the topic of exhaustive discussion among Baucus' group.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss details of the private talks.

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