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Obama wants "straight answer" from health insurers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama attacked the country’s biggest health insurers on Saturday for failing to give him a “straight answer” on why they were “arbitrarily and massively” hiking their premiums.

President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare reform from the East Room of the White House in Washington March 3, 2010. - President Obama on Wednesday said it is time to pass his healthcare overhaul using only a slim Democratic majority in Congress if necessary. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Obama’s renewed criticism of insurers comes as he tries to rally support among Americans and lawmakers within his own Democratic Party for a final push to pass a bill reforming the troubled $2.5 trillion healthcare industry.

The president and his health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, met the chief executives of four of the largest U.S. health insurance companies -- Aetna Inc, Cigna Corp, UnitedHealth Group Inc and WellPoint Inc -- at the White House this week.

“They couldn’t give me a straight answer as to why they keep arbitrarily and massively raising premiums -- by as much as 60 percent in states like Illinois,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.

“If we do not act, they will continue to do this.”

Insurers say they must raise rates to cover skyrocketing healthcare costs at a time when more people are dropping coverage because of financial hardship. Higher costs are then spread among a smaller pool of paying customers, they say.

Insurance companies have been a favorite target as Obama tries to convince Americans, who have mixed feelings about his planned healthcare overhaul, they will be better off if Congress passes his ambitious plan.

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“The proposal we’ve put forward would end the worst practices of the insurance industry, lower costs for millions of Americans and give uninsured individuals and small business the same kind of choice of private health insurance that members of Congress get for themselves,” Obama said.

The overhaul, designed to cut costs, regulate insurers and expand coverage to tens of millions of Americans, is Obama’s signature domestic policy.

“VERY CLOSE”

After Obama spent months campaigning for the overhaul, holding a series of town-hall meetings across the country, stiff Republican opposition and the loss of a crucial 60th Democratic vote in the Senate had stalled the effort.

But Obama has not given up and this week he urged Congress to vote on the plan in the next few weeks, even if it meant passing the measure with a narrow Democratic majority and no Republican support.

“I know it has been a long and hard road to this point. And we are not finished with our journey just yet. But we are close. We are very close. And so I ask Congress to finish its work,” Obama said in his weekly address.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said this week the House of Representatives could vote on a Senate-passed version of healthcare reform by March 18, when Obama is due to leave for a weeklong trip to Indonesia and Australia.

Analysts say the Democrats can ill-afford to give up on the healthcare overhaul now after devoting more than a year to the effort. Failure to pass it could hurt them in congressional elections in November.

Republicans have called on Obama to ditch the plan and start again, saying it is too expensive for a government running huge budget deficits and vastly expands the role of government in healthcare.

“Americans want reform. But they don’t want this,” said Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. “And they’re fed up because the longer Democrats cling to their flawed vision of reform, the longer Americans have to wait for the reforms they really want.”

Editing by John O’Callaghan

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