* Senate, House leaders struggle to merge their bills
* President keeps heat on insurance industry (Adds details on healthcare spending)
WASHINGTON, Jan 9 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Saturday renewed his pitch for final congressional passage of a U.S. healthcare overhaul and promised Americans they will begin reaping the benefits soon after he signs a bill into law.
As Obama’s fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate struggle to merge their healthcare bills into one, the president used his weekly radio address to try to ease lingering public doubts over his top legislative priority.
The president stepped back into the center of the healthcare debate after being preoccupied for much of his first week back from vacation in Hawaii with fallout over the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner.
“We are on the verge of passing health insurance reform that will finally offer Americans the security of knowing they’ll have quality, affordable health care whether they lose their job, change jobs, move or get sick,” he said.
Latching onto widespread public resentment against big insurers, Obama promised, “The worst practices of the insurance industry will be banned forever.”
While acknowledging it will take a few years to fully implement the reforms, Obama insisted, “What every American should know is that once I sign health insurance reform into law, there are dozens of protections and benefits that will take effect this year.”
He said the more immediate changes would include enabling uninsured Americans with pre-existing medical conditions to purchase affordable coverage, prohibiting insurance companies from imposing lifetime and annual limits on care and giving small businesses tax credits to buy coverage for employees.
The healthcare overhaul would lead to the biggest changes in the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system in four decades. Both bills would extend insurance coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans and create exchanges where individuals can shop for insurance plans.
But Democrats who control Congress face tough negotiations to reconcile House and Senate bills, which differ on issues including taxes, abortion and whether to have a government-run insurance plan. The measures must be melded together and passed again by each chamber before being sent to Obama.
Democrats want to deliver a major legislative victory for Obama and sell the public on what they believe are the benefits of reform, well before they have to fight to preserve their majorities in Congress in November midterm elections.
Republicans solidly oppose Obama’s healthcare approach, calling it a government takeover of the system and too costly, and have threatened new procedural roadblocks in the Senate. Democrats have shut them out of the closed-door negotiations.
U.S. healthcare spending would rise by $222 billion over the next decade under the Senate’s overhaul bill, the U.S. agency that oversees Medicare said in a report released on Friday.
The report, written by Richard Foster, the chief actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is the latest from the agency casting doubt on savings claims from healthcare reform.
The increased spending would primarily come from the expected influx of newly insured individuals seeking medical care, the report said. More than half of them would receive Medicaid, the report said, creating a demand level that would likely be difficult to meet over the first few years.
But Foster acknowledged that his analysis is “subject to much greater uncertainty than normal” as there is little precedence for the sweeping change in how insurance is provided and paid for under the proposed legislation.
Obama met Democratic leaders during the past week to try to push the process along. He will host labor leaders at the White House on Monday in a bid to ease their concerns. (Additional reporting by Jasmin Melvin, editing by Anthony Boadle)
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