Obama, GOP Turns Up the Heat in Health Care Debate

Mar. 3: Health professionals applaud as President Obama speaks about health care reform at the White House.

Mar. 3: Health professionals applaud as President Obama speaks about health care reform at the White House.  (AP)

WASHINGTON -- With the finish line in sight, the debate over health care reform escalated Saturday, as President Obama urged Congress to act immediately and Republicans declared that the effort "must be stopped."

In his weekly radio and Internet address, Obama turned up the heat on health insurers, some whom he met with on Thursday, saying they couldn't give him a straight answer to why they are raising premiums by as much as 60 percent in states like Illinois.

"If we do not act, they will continue to do this," he said. "They will continue to drop people's coverage when they need it. They will continue to refuse coverage based on pre-existing conditions. These practices will continue."

But Republicans, recognizing the public's mood, continued to blast Democrats for attempting to move forward on a proposal that would potentially reshape how all Americans receive health care. Republicans say they should start from scratch.

"It's not too late: we can, and we must, stop this government takeover of health care," said Rep. Parker Griffith, a first-term congressman from Alabama who switched parties in December and delivered Saturday's Republican message.

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"Make your voice heard now. America deserves better," Griffith, a retired physician, said.

The competing radio addresses underscored the urgency behind Obama's last-ditch push for immediate health care reform. With election season fast approaching, Democrats are yearning for a solid legislative accomplishment to campaign on. But a handful of Democrats may try to block health care progress unless changes are made to abortion funding language currently in the Senate bill.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., is leading this rebellion in the ranks. At the same time, Republicans believe they gain the best political advantage by insisting the president throw out the current plan and start over. 

But Democrats are considering using reconciliation to get the legislation across the goal line.

That process would let the 59 Senate Democrats declare victory with 51 votes instead of a 60-vote supermajority. More importantly, it would allow Obama's team to get back to talking about the economy, which has shed more than a million jobs since the recession began.

Obama is pleading with Democrats to overcome divisions to seize a historic moment to remake the health care system during this election year. The White House wants to pass a health care overhaul and then campaign on it. Voters will pick candidates to serve 34 Senate seats; the entire House is up for re-election.

White House officials hope the immediate changes in the health overhaul would be enough to satisfy voters' expectations -- and Democratic lawmakers who were hardly unified in support of the plan.

"The proposal we've put forward would end the worst practices of the insurance industry, lower costs for millions of Americans, and give uninsured individuals and small businesses the same kind of choice of private health insurance that members of Congress get for themselves," Obama said.

"And while it will take a few years to fully implement these reforms, there are numerous protections and benefits that would start to take effect this year."

If Democrats pass the plan, voters would find greater consumer protections and a ban on discriminating against customers with previous ailments. Small businesses would receive a tax credit this year, insurance companies would no longer be able to drop patients' coverage if they become sick, and plans would be required to offer free preventive care to customers.

Griffith said leaders of the Democratic Party he left last year were missing the point.

"For them, health care reform has become less about the best reforms and more about what best fits their 'Washington knows best' mentality -- less about helping patients and more about scoring political points," he said. "This is no idle observation. I've witnessed it firsthand."

Fox News' Steve Centanni and The Associated Press contributed to this report.