NU Online News Service, March 9, 3:30 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON–The head of America’s Health Insurance Plans said at a conference here that Congress and the Obama administration should stop excoriating carriers and focus on solving health care legislation problems.

Karen Ignagni, AHIP president and CEO, in comments at the trade group’s annual National Policy Forum, urged the White House and Democratic lawmakers to “turn away from vilification rather than problem solving.”

The AHIP meeting is being held against the background of continued criticism of health insurers by President Obama as he seeks to build support for House passage of a new version of health care reform legislation.

“Every year, insurance companies deny more people coverage because they have a preexisting condition,” President Obama said of health carriers in a speech in suburban Philadelphia yesterday.

Every year, he added, “they drop more people’s coverage when they’re sick and need it most. Every year, they raise premiums higher and higher.”

At the same time, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in a letter sent yesterday to five large health insurers, demanded that they “publicly justify” their requests for large rate hikes. In California, a carrier is seeking a 39 percent increase in rates for the individual and small group market.

The administration campaign is part of an effort to support House Democrats voting for an unpopular measure. President Obama wants the House to pass the bill by March 18, the day he leaves for a trip to Asia.

In response, Ms. Ignagni said that health insurers “strongly support health care reform because we recognize that the current system is unsustainable.”

She said, “The current debate about rising premiums has demonstrated that, in fact, we have a health care cost crisis in this country.”

Unfortunately, she said, “the path that has been followed is one of vilification rather than problem solving.”

She said that the goal of the annual conference is to “take a step back from politics and instead provide a forum for constructive and in-depth discussion on how to most effectively address the health care challenges facing the country. As we explore these issues, we will hear from individuals across the political and policy spectrum.”

She defended the industry, saying that more than a year ago, the industry proposed “robust insurance market reforms” that would guarantee coverage for preexisting conditions, and “we offered comprehensive solutions to bend the cost curve and put our health care system on a sustainable and fiscally responsible path.”

“We continue to support these objectives and are working to advance solutions that will make health care coverage more affordable for working families and small businesses across the country,” she said.