WASHINGTON- The White House cranked up its push for a quick healthcare vote in the U.S. Congress on Thursday, criticizing rising health insurance premiums at a meeting with top industry executives and wooing lawmakers.
After the White House session attended by President Barack Obama and five of the country's top health insurers, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Obama criticized the industry's jaw-dropping rate hikes.
The meeting was really focussed on what is happening with the kind of jaw-dropping rate increases that people are seeing, Sebelius said, calling on insurers to be more transparent and to file requests for rate increases online.
The day after Obama launched a last-ditch drive to pass a sweeping healthcare overhaul, he also summoned groups of liberal and moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives to meetings at the White House to seek their support.
House Democratic leaders said they were confident they could win the 216 votes needed to pass the Senate-approved health bill even though about a dozen abortion rights opponents -- including some who voted for the bill in November -- say they would be willing to oppose it.
Every legislative vote is a heavy lift around here. You assume nothing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. We will pass a bill.
Obama renewed his drive for a healthcare overhaul on Wednesday, forging ahead with a revamp of the $2.5 trillion (1.66 trillion pound) healthcare system designed to cut costs, regulate insurers and expand coverage to tens of millions of Americans.
The overhaul looked dead in its tracks in January when Republicans deprived Democrats of their crucial 60th Senate vote by winning a Massachusetts special election, stopping negotiations to merge the House and Senate-passed bills into a final product for Obama to sign.
Obama and congressional Democrats are rallying for a last make-or-break attempt, and House Democrats hope approve the Senate-passed bill within the next few weeks.
The new healthcare push and White House meeting drove down health insurer shares in afternoon trading. The Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor index was down about 1 percent and the S&P Managed Health Care index was off 2 percent.
'REFORM UP, STOCKS DOWN'
The prospects of healthcare reform are up. Stocks are down, said Tim Nelson, a healthcare analyst with First American Funds. These stocks go up and down with the prospects of healthcare reform.
At the White House, Sebelius met with the CEOs -- Aetna Inc's Ronald Williams, Cigna Corp's David Cordani, UnitedHealth Group Inc's Stephen Hemsley and WellPoint Inc's Angela Braly -- to press them to justify premium increases.
Obama dropped into the meeting to hand the executives a letter from an Ohio woman whose insurance premium is set to go up 40 percent, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Insurers have said they must raise rates to cover skyrocketing healthcare costs at a time when more people are dropping coverage amid a sour economy. Aetna's Williams said the companies recognise that there are issues, particularly in the individual insurance market, that need to be addressed.
Obama planned to meet 11 liberal House members and seven moderate House members at the White House as Congress steams towards a mid-March vote on his sweeping overhaul.
The biggest question remains whether the House can pass the Senate bill. There is little margin for error -- the House passed its version of the bill in November with only three votes to spare.
House Democrats have been unhappy with provisions in the Senate bill, and Obama offered changes to ease those concerns in the last few weeks. They include watering down a tax on expensive insurance plans and boosting federal subsidies.
Those fixes to the Senate bill will be passed separately by the House and Senate through a process called reconciliation that allows a simple majority vote in the 100-member Senate rather than the 60 votes needed to clear Republican procedural hurdles.
That approach, which can be used only for budget-related measures, would bypass rules that require 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the 100-member Senate. Reconciliation needs only a simple Senate majority of 51 votes.
But reconciliation cannot be used to change the Senate provision that weakened language banning the use of federal funds for abortion, and as a result Democratic Representative Bart Stupak said he would vote against the bill -- and he said as many as a dozen other Democrats might too.
Yes. We're prepared to take responsibility for killing the healthcare bill, Stupak said on ABC's Good Morning America program. Let's face it. I want to see healthcare. But we're not going to bypass the principles of belief that we feel strongly about.
Democrats disputed the idea that Stupak's group could bring down the bill, and said others who voted against it would change their minds this time.
We haven't done a formal whip count, but I don't think those 10 or 11 votes kills the bill, Democratic Representative Diana DeGette told reporters after a morning meeting of House Democrats.
Pelosi said the Senate bill, even with changes sought by Obama, was smaller than the original House bill. For some of our members who voted no, it has an appeal, Pelosi said.
(Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Thomas Ferraro, Tabassum Zakaria, Lewis Krauskopf, David Morgan, Patricia Zengerle; editing by David Alexander and Vicki Allen)