Obama criticizes health insurance industry in Philadelphia address

Jon Ward Contributor
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A combative President Obama went after the health insurance industry again Monday, bashing them as a greedy and cruel group that cares nothing for every day Americans but only for profits.

He also chastised Republicans for inaction when they held power in Washington and said their calls for him to start over on reform were simply attempts to stall progress.

Obama, speaking at a small liberal arts college outside Philadelphia, was more agitated and exercised as he spoke than perhaps in any speech he has given as president.

“Listen up!” he said at one point, as he sought to explain the benefits of his plan.

“That’s the most fiery I’ve seen him since the early campaign,” Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat, said afterward. “When I was listening to him I wished that he had given that in the State of the Union. If it’s the State of the Union he would have reached a lot more people.”

The president’s tone was an indication of how high the stakes are at this moment for him and for Democrats, as they try to push their health care reform across the finish line, despite strong public disapproval of their plan.

A large group of protesters gathered outside the president’s speech, while inside an auditorium he spoke to a large crowd of enthusiastic supporters, most of whom appeared to be college students.

“Congress owes the American people a final up or down vote on health care. It’s time to make a decision. The time for talk is over. We need to see where people stand,” Obama said, calling on his supporters to “knock on doors” to persuade other Americans that his plan is a good one, and to call their members of Congress.

Much of the president’s speech, however, was spent attacking insurers and Republicans.

“Every year, they drop more people’s coverage when they’re sick and need it most. Every year, they raise premiums higher and higher,” Obama said of health insurers.

The president said that insurers “have made a calculation” that they have nothing to lose by raising premiums.

“Since there’s so little competition in the insurance industry, they’re ok with people being priced out of health insurance because they’ll still make more by raising premiums on the customers they have,” Obama said. “And they will keep doing this for as long as they can get away with it.”

The insurers shot back immediately.

“The men and women in our industry are working hard every day to make the health care system better, and they do not deserve to be vilified for political purposes,” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans.

“For every dollar spent on health care in America, less than one penny goes towards health plan profits. The focus needs to be on the other 99 cents,” Zirkelbach said.

The president’s remarks are an escalation of the anti-insurance industry message that his administration has been building for weeks.

Insurance reps did not appreciate the president’s comment in his weekly address on Saturday that they did not give him “a straight answer” when he asked them, during a meeting at the White House last week, about rising rates.

The president also said that Republicans have little room to talk about cutting health care costs now, saying they should have done something when they held the White House and Congress.

“You had 10 years. What happened? What were you doing?” Obama said.

Obama’s remarks are also an updated version of the populist message he has sounded more frequently since the Massachusetts special election in January, as the president tries to tap into anger in the country over the economy and get himself on the right side of it.

Obama will travel to St. Louis on Wednesday to again try and rally support for his health care reform proposal, as Democratic congressional leaders continue to search for ways to pass the bill into law.

The most significant obstacles to passage remain threefold: a bloc of pro-life Democrats in the House are adamantly opposed to voting for the Senate bill, and a solution to that is unclear; many conservative House Democrats do not want to vote for a bill that will likely get them tossed by voters this fall; and liberal House Democrats do not trust the Senate to fix the original bill through reconciliation, and are searching for a way to guarantee that they do so.