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US President Obama pushes to revive healthcare reform

President Obama on 3 February
Barack Obama says healthcare reform is a top priority for his administration

US President Barack Obama has unveiled new plans to reform US healthcare and revive stalled legislation on the issue, aiming for bipartisan support.

One of the key proposals gives the US government new power to block health insurers from imposing excessive premium increases.

It is the first time that Mr Obama, who has made healthcare a key priority, has put forward proposals himself.

On Thursday he will hold bipartisan talks at the White House on the issue.

The Republican reaction to Mr Obama's efforts has so far been critical, with House Republican leader John Boehner saying the proposals took the same approach as that of previous Democratic bills.

STEPS AHEAD
Mr Obama's proposal comes ahead of bipartisan meeting
He hopes Republicans will lay out their ideas, which he "is willing to incorporate"
New proposal attempts to bridge bills already passed by Senate and House
White House could support muscling bill through Senate through "reconciliation", although Republicans would be furious
Reconciliation only requires 51 votes, not 60
If Senate and House vote in favour, bill will go to Mr Obama for approval

"The president has crippled the credibility of this week's summit [on Thursday] by proposing the same massive government takeover of healthcare based on a partisan bill the American people have already rejected," he said in a prepared statement.

It is a critical moment for a president whose popularity has fallen steeply since his election, says the BBC's North America editor Mark Mardell.

Healthcare has become a rallying point for conservatives who say Mr Obama is bent on introducing European-style big government, and it has worried many Americans who are not clear about what it would cost them.

But failure to pass something would look like a failure to govern by the president, our editor adds.

'More affordable'

Mr Obama's proposal "helps over 31 million Americans afford healthcare who do not get it today - and makes coverage more affordable for many more", the White House said on its website.

It gives the federal Health and Human Services Department - in conjunction with state authorities - the power to deny substantial premium increases, limit them, or demand rebates for consumers.

This comes after one of the biggest companies, Anthem Blue Cross of California, announced it would raise premiums by as much as 39% from 1 March.

I ask members of both parties to seek common ground in an effort to solve a problem that's been with us for generations
Barack Obama

Mr Obama's latest plan requires most Americans to take out health insurance coverage, with federal subsidies to help many afford the premiums.

It bars insurance companies from denying coverage to people with existing medical problems or charging them more.

A tax on high-cost health insurance plans objected to by House Democrats - and trade unions - is to be scaled back.

Mr Obama says reform of the healthcare system is crucial for the US economy to rein in costs over the long term.

The plan would put "our budget and economy on a more stable path by reducing the deficit by $100bn (£64.5bn) over the next 10 years - and more than $1tn (£644bn) over the second decade - by cutting government overspending and reining in waste, fraud and abuse", he said.

Bitter debate

The Democrats' loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown in January deprived them of their filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate, although they still control both houses.

But White House officials said the new plan would make it easier to avoid the filibuster and use a process requiring a simple majority in the Senate.

"Our proposal is designed to give ourselves maximum flexibility to ensure we can get an up-or-down vote if the opposition decides they need the extraordinary step of filibustering health reform," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, quoted by Reuters news agency.

Thursday's debate, which is to be televised, is seen as a key moment in Mr Obama's bid to pass new legislation, and comes after months of often bitterly contested congressional debates.

Mr Obama referred to the talks in his weekly radio address on Saturday, saying: "I don't want to see this meeting turn into political theatre, with each side simply reciting talking points and trying to score political points.

"Instead, I ask members of both parties to seek common ground in an effort to solve a problem that's been with us for generations."

The House of Representatives and the Senate adopted different versions of the bill at the end of last year, and they must now be combined into a single bill Mr Obama can sign into law.



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