Obama calls for universal health care

Seeking to add heft to his presidential bid, Democrat Barack Obama is offering a sweeping plan that would require every American to have health coverage and calls on government, businesses and consumers to share the costs of the program.

Obama said putting in place universal health coverage has been debated for decades, but the time has finally come to act. He said his plan could save the average consumer $2,500 a year and bring health care to all.

"The time has come for universal, affordable health care in America," Obama said in remarks prepared for delivery at the unveiling of his plan Tuesday in Iowa City.

A copy of his remarks and documents describing the program were obtained by The Associated Press.

Under Obama's proposal, every American would be required to carry health insurance, and the Illinois senator would create a National Health Insurance Exchange to monitor insurance companies in offering the coverage. In essence, Obama's plan retains the private insurance system but injects additional money into the system to pay for the expanded coverage.

Those who can't afford coverage would get a subsidy on a sliding scale depending on their income, and virtually all businesses would have to share in the cost of coverage for their workers. The plan that would be offered would be similar to the one covering members of Congress.

His package would prohibit insurance companies from refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

"My plan begins by covering every American. If you already have health insurance, the only thing that will change for you under this plan is that the amount of money you will spend on premiums will be less," Obama said. "If you are one of 45 million Americans who don't have health insurance, you will after this plan becomes law."

In addition to broadening coverage, Obama called for a series of steps to overhaul the current health care system. He would spend more money boosting technology in the health industry such as electronic record-keeping, put in place better management for chronic diseases and create a reinsurance pool for catastrophic illnesses to take the burden of their costs off of other premium payers.

His plan also envisions savings from ending the expensive care for the uninsured when they get sick. That care now is often provided at emergency rooms. The plan also would put a heavy focus on preventing disease through lifestyle changes.

In all, Obama said, the typical consumer would save $2,500 a year.

Obama conceded that the overall cost of the program would be high, while not providing a specific number.

"To help pay for this, we will ask all but the smallest businesses who don't make a meaningful contribution to the health coverage of their workers to do so to support this plan," said Obama. "And we also will repeal the temporary Bush tax cut for the wealthiest taxpayers."

Unveiling the proposal marks a crucial step for Obama. Serving in his first term as a senator, Obama often is criticized as not having the experience to be a serious candidate for the party's nomination.

Some also see him as offering more style than substance, and he's clearly hoping that spelling out a detailed plan to offer health care for all will deflect those criticisms. Polls also have shown that voters rank health care as among their top concerns.

Obama says that's the message he's getting on the campaign trail virtually everywhere he goes. He said the current system that's left 45 million people — including 9 million children — without health insurance goes against the nation's basic instincts.

"That is not who we are. We are not a country that rewards hard work and perseverance with bankruptcies and foreclosures," said Obama. "We are not a country that allows major challenges to go unsolved and unaddressed while our people suffer needlessly."

Obama said he would seek to use his presidential campaign as a vehicle to build momentum for changes in the health care system, allowing him to break a gridlock that's lasted since Harry Truman was president.

"In the richest nation on Earth, it is simply not right that the skyrocketing profits of the drug and insurance industries are paid for by the skyrocketing premiums that come from the pockets of the American people," he said.

Obama said several states already had taken up health care initiatives on their own. These states would be allowed to retain programs they've crafted, as long as they meet the minimum standards he proposes.

"Every year candidates offer up detailed plans with great fanfare, only to see them crushed under the weight of Washington politics and drug and insurance industry lobbying once the campaign is over," said Obama. "Well, this cannot be one of those years."