WASHINGTON The White House ratcheted 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 key lawmakers.
After a White House session attended by President Barack Obama and several of the country's top health insurers, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius questioned the industry's "jaw-dropping" rate hikes.
"The meeting was really focused on what is happening with the kind of jaw-dropping rate increases that people are seeing," Sebelius said, calling on insurers to file requests for rate increases online along with financial data.
The day after Obama launched a last-ditch drive to pass a sweeping healthcare overhaul, he also met at the White House with groups of liberal and moderate Democrats from the House of Representatives to seek their support.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs predicted the House would pass healthcare reform before Obama leaves on a weeklong trip to Indonesia and Australia on March 18, and House Democratic leaders said they were on course for quick action.
"Our expectation is we will be moving on this bill in the near future, prior to the Easter break," House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said. The recess begins on March 26.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was confident Democrats could win the 217 votes needed to pass the Senate-approved health bill even though about a dozen abortion rights opponents -- including some who voted for a House bill in November -- say they will oppose it.
"Every legislative vote is a heavy lift around here. You assume nothing," 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 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.
The new healthcare push and White House meeting drove down health insurer shares in late trading. The Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor index was down about 1.3 percent and the S&P Managed Health Care index was off 2.3 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 recent 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, Gibbs said.
Insurers, a prime target of the Obama administration in the drive for healthcare reform, have said they must raise rates to cover skyrocketing costs as more people drop coverage amid a sour economy. Afterward, they called the meeting positive.
"It was a very constructive engagement," UnitedHealth's Hemsley said. "We got into some good discussion with respect to things that are driving underlying costs and are challenging the affordability of healthcare to American families."
Obama also met separately with 11 liberals and seven moderates from the House to push for their support as the White House stepped up its lobbying for the healthcare bill.
"It was a very good meeting. The president impressed upon us the need to pass comprehensive healthcare reform and do it soon," said Representative Joseph Crawley, chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition.
But it remains unclear whether the House -- which passed its version in November with only three votes to spare -- can pass a Senate bill that many have complained about.
Obama proposed revisions to the Senate bill last week to ease the concerns of House Democrats. The changes included watering down a tax on expensive insurance plans and boosting federal subsidies to make coverage more affordable.
Those fixes to the Senate bill will be passed separately 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.
"The pressure is on the House. That's where the game is right now," Republican Senator John Thune said. "What the House members are being asked to do is assume a lot of trust in the Senate to fix it."
But reconciliation cannot be used to change a Senate provision that weakened language banning the use of federal funds for abortion. Democratic Representative Bart Stupak, an abortion rights opponent who backed the bill in November, said he would vote against it and other Democrats might too if that is not changed.
"There's at least 12 who voted for it and who will not vote for it if the language is not resolved," he told reporters.
Democrats disputed the suggestion Stupak's group could bring down the bill, and said others who voted against it would change their minds this time.
"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 and would win new support from moderates who opposed it before. "For some of our members who voted no, it has an appeal," Pelosi said.
(Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Doug Palmer, Thomas Ferraro, Tabassum Zakaria, Patricia Zengerle, Lewis Krauskopf, David Morgan; editing by David Alexander and Eric Beech)