* Obama: insurers use 'massive war chest' to fight reform
* President backs review of insurers' anti-trust exemption
* Healthcare reform closer than ever, Obama says
(Adds Obama quote, insurance industry comment)
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Oct 17 U.S. President Barack Obama
lashed out on Saturday against the "deceptive and dishonest"
efforts of health insurance companies, who he said are trying
to kill healthcare reform, no matter the cost to the country.
Sharpening his attack on insurers, Obama also signaled
support for a congressional review of the insurance industry's
long-standing exemption from federal anti-trust laws. Some
Democrats want the privilege repealed.
The Democratic president's push to revamp the $2.5 trillion
U.S. healthcare industry, his top domestic policy priority,
received a big boost this week when the Senate Finance
Committee approved its version of a reform measure with the
support of Republican Senator Olympia Snowe.
Many experts expect some version of a healthcare bill will
pass this year, but there are still major disagreements on
details, including whether the measure will include a
government-run insurance program, the "public option."
"For the first time ever, all five committees in Congress
responsible for health reform have passed a version of
legislation," Obama said in his weekly radio address. "As I
speak to you today, we are closer to reforming the health care
system than we have ever been in history."
However, he acknowledged the overhaul still must clear
significant hurdles before becoming law. "And there are still
those who would try to kill reform at any cost," he said.
For decades, whenever we have tried to reform the system,
the insurance companies have done everything in their
considerable power to stop us," Obama said.
"And they're earning these profits and bonuses while
enjoying a privileged exception from our anti-trust laws, a
matter that Congress is rightfully reviewing," he said.
BATTLE INTENSIFIED THIS WEEK
The battle over reform between angry Democrats and health
insurers intensified when the industry trade group America's
Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) issued a report on Monday, on the
eve of the finance committee's vote, saying Senate healthcare
legislation would lead to increases in annual insurance
premiums of as much as $4,000 by 2019.
Democrats denied the findings, citing a report by the
nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that said the Finance
Committee bill would make health coverage affordable to
millions of Americans who do not have it and slow the growth of
Defending insurers' position, AHIP spokesman Robert
Zirkelbach said, "We are not trying to stop reform as some have
suggested. We want reform that will work and can be sustained,
and we are offering solutions to address the concerns."
He said threats to repeal the industry's anti-trust
exemption -- the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which kept regulation
in the states' hands -- was "retaliation for us speaking out."
Obama maintained, however, that the insurance industry "is
rolling out the big guns and breaking open their massive war
chest -- to marshal their forces for one last fight to save the
"They're filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest
ads. They're flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists and campaign
contributions. And they're funding studies designed to mislead
the American people," he said.
Democratic leaders in Congress began work this week on
merging the various committees' proposals on healthcare while
keeping party liberals and moderates -- and Snowe -- happy.
Senate Republicans demanded Democrats allow more time to
debate the details of the sweeping plan. Obama has set the end
of the year as his goal for passing a measure that would begin
to slow increases in healthcare costs, regulate the insurance
market and expand health coverage without increasing the
federal budget deficit.
Health insurers' shares dropped this week after news of the
finance committee's vote.
Obama vowed an overhaul will go through.
"Every time we get close to passing reform, the insurance
companies produce these phony studies as a prescription and
say, 'Take one of these, and call us in a decade.' Well, not
this time," Obama said.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)