Reprinted from Physician News Briefs

By Ceci Connolly and Michael D. Shear

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009; 2:42 PM

After a key Senate committee pushed forward with an overhaul of the nation’s health care system, President Obama today sought to reassure Americans satisfied with their current health insurance that the plans passed by Congress in the last two days are a step toward more efficient care.

"Let me be clear: If you like your doctor or health care provider, you can keep them. If you like your health care plan, you can keep that too," he said in a Rose Garden event. "But here’s what else reform will mean for you: you’ll save money. If you lose your job, change your job, or start a new business, you’ll still be able to find quality health insurance you can afford."

Criticism of the Democratic health reform efforts has increasingly centered on the threat to health services for people who already have insurance. That criticism has forced the White House and congressional leaders to revise their message to sell those who are satisfied with the health care they already receive.

Surrounded by nurses today, Obama insisted that no one should be satisfied with the current system.

"Health insurance premiums have risen three times faster than wages. Deductibles and out-of-pocket costs are skyrocketing. And every single day we wait to act, thousands of Americans lose their insurance, some turning to nurses in the emergency room as their only recourse," he said. "So make no mistake: The status quo on health care is not an option for the United States of America."

The president praised the Senate’s passage this morning of its health reform bill, calling it the result of "unyielding passion and inspiration provided by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and the bold leadership of Senator Chris Dodd."

He vowed to reject the "naysayers and cynics" who say the government can’t finish health care reform.

"We’re going to get this done. These nurses are on board. The American people are on board," he said. "It’s up to us now."

The Senate’s health committee approved legislation earlier today that, if enacted, would vastly expand health insurance coverage in America and tighten restrictions on the way the industry operates.

The 13-10, party-line vote gives Obama an important victory in what promises to be a lengthy and contentious drive to enact a comprehensive health-care overhaul this year.

The bill, named "Quality, Affordable Health Coverage for All Americans," would create a controversial new government-sponsored health program that would compete with the private sector. It requires that every American carry health insurance and provides generous discounts to people who cannot afford a plan. Millions more Americans would also be eligible for Medicaid, the joint federal-state health program for the poor.

In a statement issued before the Rose Garden even, Obama said the proposal would "bring down costs, expand coverage, and increase choice." The committee vote, he added, "should . . . provide the urgency for both the House and Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess."

Under the legislation, most businesses would be required to offer insurance to workers or pay a $750 annual fee per full-time employee. Companies with fewer than 25 employees would be exempt from the mandate, which faces fierce opposition by the Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Sen. Mike Enzi, (R-Wyo.), the highest-ranking Republican on the committee, delivered a bitter speech decrying the "partisan bill" as one that increases the deficit, "kills jobs and cuts wages."

More than anything, the vote this morning by the panel, formally named the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, gives Democrats a bit of forward motion in a legislative effort that has sputtered in recent weeks.

"Health care reform is now one step closer to reality," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). He added, "This action is a positive step toward quality and affordable health care that Americans need and deserve."

The Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the financing of health reform, has fallen behind its schedule as Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) searches for bipartisan consensus on the politically difficult issue.

Three members of the panel scheduled a news conference for this afternoon to put pressure on the insurance industry to contribute up to $100 billion over the next decade toward the cost of expanded health coverage. House Democrats have announced a plan that would force the richest 2 million U.S. taxpayers to shoulder much of the cost of an expansion of the nation’s health-care system, by imposing a surtax of as much as 5.4 percent on income above $350,000 a year.

Also today, the Democratic Party’s Organizing for America released new television ads touting the urgent need for health reform. The 30-second spot, dubbed "It’s Time," features average Americans who say they have been negatively affected by the current system.

Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) is filling in as chairman of the health committee for the ailing Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime proponent of health-care reform who has devoted decades to the cause of universal health coverage.

The absent senator, who is battling terminal brain cancer, issued an emotional statement to the committee from his sickbed, recalling that his two slain brothers announced their candidacies for the presidency in the Russell Caucus Room, where today’s vote took place.

"As you vote today, know that I am with you in heart and mind and soul, and I wish very much that I could be with you in person," Kennedy said. "The American people are on the march once more, and they will not stop until quality, affordable health care is the birthright of every American. And we are with them every step of the way."

Dodd told his colleagues that Kennedy, a close friend, is "ecstatic about our efforts here."