Obama says GOP is protecting insurers, not limited government

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama has taken a new line of attack against Republicans to neutralize their argument that his reforms would pose a government takeover of the health-care sector, arguing subtly that the GOP is committed more to the insurance industry than they are limited government.

The president began framing the new narrative at midday Thursday, during the lunch break of his day-long bipartisan summit with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders (transcript here, here, here and here).

“If you look at the issue of how much government should be involved, the argument that the Republicans are making really isn’t that this is a government takeover of health care but rather that … we’re regulating the insurance market too much,” Obama said as he walked from the Blair House back to the White House after the summit’s morning session.

His comment sprang out of a back and forth with a few Republican lawmakers over whether exchanges meant to allow individuals and small businesses to pool together for greater purchasing power should be regulated by the government to ensure that insurers meet “baseline … minimum requirements” to protect consumers.

The next day, Friday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs spoke three separate times, during his on-camera briefing with reporters, of a “philosophical” difference between Republicans and Democrats over how to treat the insurance industry.

“The question … is whether or not, again, whether or not the philosophical differences of regulating the insurance industry, regulating insurance companies and providing people with a base level of protection is a bridge just simply too far for the Republicans to come,” Gibbs said.

But Republicans, as far as philosophical convictions go, are opposed to too much government control. Democratic proposals to regulate exchanges, they believe, amount to more than just consumer protections.

Republicans have said the Democrats’ health-care reforms are a government takeover long after the government-run “public option” was off the table. They have cited proposals that mandate every American buy insurance combined with proposals that would give the government say-so over what constitutes a qualified plan one must buy.

“We don’t care for this bill,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. “It does have to do with the philosophical difference that you point out. It does have to do with our fear that if you say that Washington can be the one to define essential health benefits, there may be a problem with that.”

“And that’s the language that’s in the Section 1302 of this bill, that it says that the secretary shall define for people what essential health benefits are,” Cantor said.

Nonetheless, on Saturday the president went for the jugular.

In his weekly address, Obama described differences that emerged between himself and Republicans at the summit Thursday.

“We disagreed over whether insurance companies should be held accountable when they deny people care or arbitrarily raise premiums. I believe they should,” Obama said.

This comment sent Republicans through the roof.

John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said the charge was “nonsense.”

“We have a different way to hold insurance companies accountable in our bill,” Hart said.

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, said their plan “establishes universal access programs to guarantee access to affordable health care for those with pre-existing conditions.”

“Our plan also prohibits an insurer from canceling a policy unless a person commits fraud or conceals material facts about a health condition,” Smith said.

As the White House tries to turn public opinion and bolster wavering Democrats in the hopes of passing something over the next month, they are likely to make this a regular talking point.

Obama will announce this week whether he intends to press ahead with a bill in Congress. Every expectation is that he will. But whether Democrats will have enough votes, particularly in the House, is up in the air.