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Obama to seek federal power over insurers

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will propose today giving the federal government new power to block excessive rate increases by health insurance companies, as he rolls out comprehensive legislation to revamp the nation's health care system.

The president's plan, posted on the White House Web site, aims to bridge differences between the bills adopted by the House and Senate late last year, and to frame his debate with Republicans over health policy at a televised "summit" meeting Thursday.

By focusing on the effort to tighten regulation of insurance costs, a new element not included in either the House or Senate bills, Obama is seizing on outrage over recent premium increases of up to 39 percent announced by Anthem Blue Cross of California and moving to portray the Democrats' health overhaul as a way to protect Americans from predatory insurers.

Congressional Republicans have long denounced the Democrats' legislation as a "government takeover" of health care. And while they will likely resist any expansion of federal authority over existing state regulators, they will face a tough balancing act at the meeting with the president to avoid appearing as if they are willing to allow steep premium hikes.

Republican leaders had not formally accepted the president's invitation to the meeting. But the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Sunday that he would attend.

The president's bill would grant the federal health and human services secretary new authority to review, and to block, premium increases by private insurers, potentially superseding state insurance regulators. The bill would create a new Health Insurance Rate Authority, composed of health industry experts, that would issue an annual report setting the parameters for reasonable rate increases based on conditions in the market.

The president's bill, like the measures adopted by the House and Senate, is also expected to require most Americans to obtain insurance and would provide new federal subsidies to help moderate-income people buy private coverage.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, hoped a compromise — "sweet spot," he called it — was possible. "If you really want to serve the people and not just your party, I think you will find that sweet spot and you can get it done," he said.

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania appealed to Republicans to offer their own proposals: "You take some of our ideas. We'll take some of your ideas. We may not love your ideas, but we'll take them. If they don't do that, I think this whole dynamic of this political year could turn around."

Rendell and Schwarzenegger spoke from the sidelines of the National Governors Association meeting. Four leaders of the group, two Republicans and two Democrats, later summoned the media to a news conference and offered to strike a compromise between the warring factions.

"We are making an offer to help and are very willing to roll up our sleeves and help if that's what Congress and the president decided," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.

The governors' plea was an implicit acknowledgment that Obama and the Democratic-led Congress have frozen governors out of the process.

Information from the Associated Press was used in the report.

Obama to seek federal power over insurers 02/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 21, 2010 10:43pm]

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