President Barack Obama told the nation Saturday his health care overhaul is financially sound, but a new analysis by congressional budget experts of emerging House legislation said it would increase deficits by $239 billion over a decade.
"I want to be very clear: I will not sign on to any health plan that adds to our deficits over the next decade," the president said in his weekly address. "And by helping improve quality and efficiency, the reforms we make will help bring our deficits under control in the long-term," he added.
It was the sixth consecutive day Obama sought to keep the focus on his chief domestic priority in the face of mounting resistance on Capitol Hill, including from conservative Democrats. Republicans also renewed their criticism.
The president's remarks were released late Friday, a few hours before an update by the Congressional Budget Office said the overall cost of the House bill would "result in a net increase in the federal budget deficit of $239 billion over the 2010-2019 period." The estimate included the cost of higher Medicare fees for doctors, an important ingredient of the measure for the American Medical Association. The AMA, which represents physicians, endorsed the bill late last week.
The CBO analysis said the bill would result in a reduction in the deficit from 2010-2014 before it began to add red ink in gradually increasing amounts for the next five years.
In a statement issued Saturday evening, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the leadership did not intend to find savings to offset the estimated $245 billion cost of higher Medicare fees for doctors.
The money is not "increased spending for a new policy, but rather the costs of maintaining our existing policy to prevent a cut in physician rates," they said. Without a change, doctor fees would fall by 21 percent.
The statement said the legislation taking shape "is deficit neutral for all of the increased costs from new and expanded programs under the health reform section" of the bill.
Administration officials did not respond to a request for comment on whether that complied with Obama's vow that health care overhaul would not add to the deficit.
Obama has said consistently the current drive for health care could be the last for the foreseeable future if it does not succeed.
"This is what the debate in Congress is all about: whether we'll keep talking and tinkering and letting this problem fester as more families and businesses go under and more Americans lose their coverage," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. "Or whether we'll seize this opportunity — one we might not have again for generations — and finally pass health insurance reform this year, in 2009."
Through the week, Obama tried to project confidence about his approach to cover millions of uninsured people. During a private meeting with Jewish leaders on Monday, he joked that the only thing more difficult than passing health care legislation might be negotiating Mideast peace.
At a late scheduled White House appearance Friday, he appealed to lawmakers not to "lose heart" and asked for deeper cost cuts to calm concern over the huge expense.
Republicans were not swayed.
"The president and some Democrats insist we must rush this plan through," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "Why? Because the more Americans know about it, the more they oppose it. Something this important needs to be done right, rather than done quickly."
Two House committees on Friday approved their parts of the bill over Republican objections. That left one more to act. But Democrats facing tough re-election bids or representing conservative districts demanded additional measures to hold down costs.
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