US President Barack Obama gave Congress a hefty nudge over his health reform drive, opening a week expected to see an influential Senate panel cast a key vote on his top domestic priority.
Surrounded by white coat-wearing doctors from all 50 US states, Obama returned to the front lines of the health reform debate, after several weeks immersed in foreign and economic crises.
Advertisement"We have been debating this issue of health insurance reform for months," Obama said, launching a nationwide lobbying effort by physicians who back his plan.
"We have listened to every charge and countercharge from the crazy claims about death panels, and mistaken warnings about a government takeover of health care," he said, noting two common Republican attack lines.
Obama said that beneath the "noise" and "distractions" characterizing the health care debate, it was clear many doctors backed his reform plans.
"The reason these doctors are here is because they have seen firsthand what's broken about our health care system," Obama said.
"They've seen what happens when their patients can't get the care they need because some insurance company has decided to drop their coverage or water it down."
The health care push has far-reaching implications for Obama's political viability, even beyond his effort to reform a system beset by fast-rising costs which leaves 47 million people in America lacking health care.
Washington insiders say securing health care reform, which has confounded previous Democratic presidents, could bolster Obama's capacity to enact other areas of his sweeping domestic agenda.
"I'm confident we are going to get health reform passed this year," the president said, on a sunny morning in the White House Rose Garden.
But John Boehner, who leads the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, argued that doctors were far from unanimous in backing Obama's plan.
"Medical societies and thousands of doctors from throughout the nation have spoken out against Washington Democrats' costly government takeover of health care because it would cripple their ability to care properly for patients," Boehner said.
Obama's remarks came ahead of an expected vote this week by the Senate Finance Committee on its version of health care reform, paving the way for full Senate and House debates in the coming weeks.
The president did not mention the so-called "public option", the notion of a government-run entity Obama has said should be set up to compete with private insurers to widen access and bring down the cost of treatment.
Many House Democrats have said they will not back a bill that does not contain such a plan.
But the "public option" is seen as having almost no chance of passage in the Senate, complicating the task of crafting a single law from both chambers of Congress.
A total of five different versions of health care reform are competing for influence in Congress, with weeks of haggling and horse-trading expected before any final version of the bill comes to a vote.
Obama is vowing to cut costs, to bring affordable health care within the reach of all Americans, and to stop insurance firms rejecting patients when they get sick, or turning them away if they have pre-existing conditions.
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