Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a physician who also was Vermont governor and a former presidential candidate, said on national television Wednesday he believed legislation in the Senate would now benefit the insurance industry more than it helps Americans struggling to gain health coverage or pay for it.
Dean said the bill was an "insurance company's dream."
But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said if that's the case, "I don't think the insurance companies have gotten the memo" and continue fighting so hard against the measure.
The sharp exchange came as Senate Democratic leaders push for a vote on the health care bill just before Christmas. The president, who is scheduled to take a vacation at that time, has not indicated if he would stay in Washington for that vote.
Dean told ABC's "Good Morning America" that Washington conventional wisdom has become "passing any bill is a victory. Decisions are being made about the long-term future of this country for short-term political reasons. And that's never a good sign."
Dean went on to imply that 27 percent of the money put into the new health care program by individuals won't go to their own health care, and that only a small number of people will get any insurance at all before the year 2014 if the bill works in its current form.
But Gibbs said those claims "quite simply weren't true."
"Nobody will be required to purchase something they can't afford. There are hardship exemptions and subsidies based on income levels that help people afford insurance," Gibbs said. "He went on later in the interview to discuss the notion that legislation no longer contains anything that addresses pre-existing conditions. That's simply flat-out wrong."
Gibbs even reached back to Dean's failed presidential bid in 2004, when Dean made health care legislation reform a central part of his campaign, and pointed out that the current plan by Obama conquers obstacles Dean's plan could not.
"There's two differences in what Dr. Dean was doing in 2004 and what President Obama is doing in 2009," Gibbs said. "One, more people are uninsured and more people are losing their coverage because people can't afford it. Secondly, we actually deal with costs."
The back and forth between Dean and Obama on health care reform is not new, but the former DNC chairman's comments Wednesday seemed to touch a nerve at the White House that could reverberate back to Capitol Hill.
Gibbs continually linked Dean to members of the Senate and his own party who support health the current Senate bill, even with compromises.
"Understand, Sen. Harkin, who shares many of the political views that Howard Dean has, supports the bill; Sherrod Brown, many other progressives in the caucus...Because they understand that passing a bill covering 30 million Americans that don't have health insurance is a giant step forward," Gibbs said.
But Dean wasn't convinced.
"In Washington, you get into this crunch where bad- good money gets thrown after bad- good money gets thrown after bad- and good policy gets thrown after bad policy," he said. "And at this point, I think, the bill is not worth passing in its present form."
Fox News' Eve Zibel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.