RALEIGH, North Carolina - Senators reported progress on legislation to overhaul the nation's health care Wednesday as President Barack Obama introduced a retooled message asserting his plan would protect Americans and limit insurers' power.
"We have a system today that works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn't always work well for you," Obama told more than 2,000 people in a North Carolina high school gymnasium. "What we need, and what we will have when we pass these reforms, are health insurance consumer protections to make sure that those who have insurance are treated fairly and insurance companies are held accountable."
Back in Washington, senators trying to reach a bipartisan compromise reported progress paring the costs of the plan as they push for a deal this week on legislation that they hope will appeal to the political middle.
Sen. Max Baucus, the Democrat leading the negotiations among three Democrats and three Republicans, said new estimates from the Congressional Budget Office show the plan that's taking shape would cover 95 per cent of Americans by 2015, and cost about $900 billion over 10 years - under the unofficial $1 trillion target the White House has set.
As Congress continued to haggle over various bills on Capitol Hill, the president flew to North Carolina to emphasize consumer protections that he said would be in any bill he would sign. He was making the same pitch later in Virginia.
Among those protections: Insurers would be required to set annual caps on how much they can charge for out-of-pocket expenses, would have to fully cover routine tests to help prevent illness and would be required to renew any policy as long as the policyholder paid the premium in full. Insurers also would be barred from refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions, scaling back insurance for people who fall very ill, charging more for services based on gender or and placing limits on coverage. And, they wouldn't be able to deny children family coverage through age 26.
The United States is the only developed nation that does not have a comprehensive national health care plan for all its citizens, and Obama campaigned on a promise to offer affordable health care to all Americans. About 50 million of America's 300 million people lack health insurance. With unemployment rising, many Americans are losing their employer-provided health insurance.
For all his involvement over the past few weeks, Obama has suffered several setbacks. House of Representatives and Senate lawmakers remain at a crossroads over a slew of issues, and public opinion polls show confidence in Obama's approach to revamping health care has slipped since he took office. As cost estimates have ballooned, Republican critics have stepped up their attacks. More troublesome for Obama: conservative and moderate Democrats have balked at the bills under consideration.
Even as several committees make progress on measures in the House and Senate, overall momentum for quick passage has stalled. And the president is trying to restart it.
In doing so, he is putting his leadership abilities and his governing style to arguably the ultimate test six months into his presidency. His goal: legislation that expands coverage to some 50 million people without medical insurance while restraining exploding costs in the $2.4 trillion U.S. health care system.
Publicly, Obama has sketched broad outlines of his proposals but largely left the heavy lifting to Congress. The president asked the House and Senate to pass legislation by the time Congress leaves on an August break. But Democrats who control Congress seem to agree with Republicans that the chances of that are slim to none.
Numerous House and Senate committees have been writing bills that have stoked concerns about the cost to taxpayers and the reach of government.
Democratic Party veterans in the House largely wrote legislation with a liberal bent, angering moderate and conservative Democrats. Senate Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have seemingly bowed to moderate Democrats who have insisted on trying to work out a deal with a handful of moderate Republicans in hopes of getting a bill that can get bipartisan support. Most other Republican members in Congress are not even at the negotiating table, happy to oppose measures they deride as "socialized medicine."
Even though members of the president's own party have comfortable majorities in Congress, the Senate postponed a vote until September and the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will not commit to a vote before lawmakers are scheduled to leave Washington later this week for summer break.
Obama's biggest problem: conservative and moderate Democrats in both the House and the Senate are upset with measures being pushed by the liberal leaders of the two bodies.
As this family feud wages in Washington, the nation's charismatic chief executive is venturing out of Washington to do what he seems to do best - campaign, and grab the local media spotlight that comes with a presidential visit.
He faces a public that's both supportive and skeptical of health care overhaul.
A recent AP-GfK poll found that a healthy majority of the country says health care is an extremely important issue to them personally. And half approve of Obama's handling of health care, a level unchanged from the spring.
But the percentage of people who don't approve has risen to 43 per cent, up from 28 per cent in April. And while a majority of people - 56 per cent - still say it's likely that Obama will be able to implement health care reform, that's down from 63 per cent just before his inauguration. Also, a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey showed approval of Obama's handling of a health care overhaul slipping below 50 per cent for the first time.