COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Calling health insurance reform a “defining struggle of this generation,” President Barack Obama told thousands of college students Thursday that Congress must resist scare tactics and false accusations to do a makeover.

The fight will be difficult, Obama said, but an “unprecedented coalition” of hospitals, doctors, nurses and drug makers support the effort. Some of the most enthusiastic backers, he told loudly cheering students at the University of Maryland, “are the very medical professionals who have firsthand knowledge” of how badly the current system operates.

“When I sign this bill, it will be against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick,” the president said.

Obama again called for a public insurance option, which most congressional Republicans, and some
Democrats, oppose. It would not amount to “a government takeover of health care,” he said. Obama stopped short of insisting on such a plan.

Eliminating “waste and abuse” in the Medicare and Medicaid programs will help the government find money to cover most of the Americans now without insurance, he said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has introduced a bill that would rein in spiraling medical costs and require nearly everyone to carry health insurance. A vote in his committee could occur as early as next week, but many hurdles remain in both the House and Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., intends to begin debate on the Senate floor as early as late this month or early October. The House also is aiming for action this fall. The hope is to meet Obama’s goal
of signing legislation this year.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called Baucus’ plan overall an “important building block” that “gets us closer to comprehensive health care reform.” And Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it “will move this historic debate forward.”

Other Democrats were less enthusiastic, and not a single Republican announced support when Baucus introduced the measure Wednesday.

Obama’s rally in Maryland was part of a campaign-style blitz to keep the pressure on Congress. He’s also planning to appear on five Sunday morning talk shows and visit David Letterman’s late-night show Monday on CBS.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said Thursday that party leaders would do all they could to ensure they get the votes for legislation.

Congressional budget experts estimate the proposal would reduce the ranks of the uninsured by 29 million over a decade, and trim federal deficits by $49 billion over the same period. Many of the bill’s major provisions would be delayed until 2013.

Baucus’ legislation reflected nearly a year of preparation, a partially successful attempt to gain support from outside interest groups and months of painstaking negotiations with two other Democrats and three Republicans on the Finance Committee – the so-called Gang of Six.

But when Baucus stood in front of the cameras Wednesday, he was alone. Republicans withheld their support, claiming the measure was still too costly and intrusive, and liberals reacted bitterly, too, saying it didn’t go far enough to make health insurance affordable for lower-income people. Others said the middle class would take a hit.

“Many middle-class people would pay more than they are paying today and would face the prospects of a penalty if they don’t comply,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Finance Committee who wasn’t involved in the negotiations.

Not carrying insurance could result in a steep fine under Baucus’ bill, as much as $3,800 per family, or $950 for an individual. People who can’t afford their premiums would be exempted from the fine.

Wyden said he would try to amend the bill to make it more affordable to the middle class, one of a host of amendments sure to be offered from both sides in the Finance Committee next week. Another worry for some lawmakers, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is that a proposed tax on high-value insurance plans would hurt middle-class workers, particularly union members with generous benefit packages.

Of the three Republicans involved in the Gang of Six talks – Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Olympia Snowe of Maine – Democrats hold out most hope that Snowe ultimately will vote “yes.”

Snowe promised to continue to work with Baucus and Democrats on drafting a bipartisan bill.

Like other proposals in circulation, Baucus’ plan would require insurance companies to sell coverage to all seeking it, without exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions or prohibitively expensive premiums.

The legislation would create so-called insurance exchanges in the states, where insurance companies could sell policies that meet criteria set by the government, with federal subsidies available for lower-income individuals and families who otherwise would be unable to afford coverage.

Associated Press writers David Espo, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this report.