WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Support grew on Friday for insurance industry demands that all Americans be required to obtain coverage as part of a planned healthcare system overhaul, with a senior Senate Democrat and a coalition of business and consumer groups promoting the idea.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat who is helping write healthcare legislation, said an insurance requirement, or mandate, would help the market function better and reduce premium costs for everyone.
Baucus argued that the cost of medical care for people with no insurance is being shifted to those with insurance, forcing costs higher.
"An individual obligation to get health coverage is essential," Baucus said in a speech to the Center for American Progress think tank.
Meanwhile, an influential coalition of hospital, nurses, doctors, business, consumer and insurance groups said on Friday its members had agreed on a set of reform ideas including a mandate that all Americans obtain health insurance.
The coalition, called the Health Reform Dialogue, also backed the idea of federal subsidies to help people pay for medical coverage.
The coalition includes groups such at the AARP, which represents older Americans, the American Hospital Association, America's Health Insurance Plans industry group, the healthcare advocacy group Families USA, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
There currently is no requirement that Americans have health insurance, and many do not. The government says about 46 million people went without any public or private coverage in 2007, the last year for which figures were available.
President Barack Obama has called a healthcare system overhaul one of his leading priorities for this year.
The support of this coalition and Baucus make it more likely that any healthcare legislation will embrace an insurance mandate despite concern in both parties about imposing it on people who may be unable to afford it.
Baucus did not spell out how his idea for a mandate would work, but it could be imposed on individuals, or employers could be required to provide coverage to workers, or a combination of both.
Insurance industry representatives told a Senate hearing this week that they needed a mandate to keep premiums affordable if they were going to end the current practice of charging higher premiums for the sick and excluding pre-existing medical conditions from coverage.
Obama also may be softening his stance against a mandate, telling a White House question-and-answer session on Thursday that the issue will be "part of the debate."
During his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, Obama argued against a mandate, while his rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, who is now his secretary of state, backed it.
Obama said on Thursday he was still "skeptical" about a mandate because people who lack health insurance do so because they cannot afford it, not because they do not want it.
Editing by Will Dunham