WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Barack Obama invoked the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on Wednesday, citing a letter in which the senator said that health-care reform "is above all a moral issue."
"'At stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country,'" the president said, quoting the letter which Kennedy had written in May and asked to be delivered after his death.
"I've thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days -- the character of our country," Obama said to a joint session of Congress. "One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government."
Kennedy recognized, however, that with all of the drive of Americans to stand strong, there comes a time when government must step in to help, Obama said.
"When fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand," the president said, citing "a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise."
The President also said he would call out anyone who misrepresents what's in his health care plan. He says he would listen to a "serious set of proposals" from Democrats or Republicans, but would not "waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it."
"I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are," he said. "If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now."
Obama said his proposal contained elements from both sides of the aisle and that he would "continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead."
"If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen," he said. "My door is always open."
Obama directed his administration to set up demonstration projects in several states to move toward medical malpractice reform, throwing a bone to Republicans who have long called for tort reform to bring down health care costs.
"I don't believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I have talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs," the president said to a joint session of Congress.
He proposed demonstration projects -- considered by the Bush administration -- "on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine."
Mention of the issue prompted applause from the Republican side of the chamber.
The President promised that any health-care bill approved by Congress won't increase the federal deficit. He says savings in the existing health-care system would cover most of the cost of an overhaul bill.
He also sought to ensure the elderly that cutting costs and finding savings in the Medicare program for senior citizens won't diminish the level of service currently provided. In particular, he said that "not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund" would pay for the bill.
However, Obama provided few details of how that would happen, saying the plan would eliminate "unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies" and create an independent commission of doctors and medical experts to identify further waste.
"These steps will ensure that you - America's seniors - get the benefits you've been promised," Obama said. "They will ensure that Medicare is there for future generations."
He urged the elderly to ignore what he called "scary stories about how your benefits will be cut -- especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past."
Obama also defended his proposal for government-run public health insurance as an option for consumers, saying it would force private insurers lower costs.
But he did call the provision one alternative for increasing competition for health insurance and signaled his openness to alternatives.
"I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice," he said, without specifying the public option. "And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."
Republicans are unanimous in opposing a public option, calling it an unfair competitor that would drive private insurers from the market and lead to a government takeover of health insurance. Obama rejected that claim as a false allegation intended to scare people.
"Let me be clear -- it would only be an option for those who don't have insurance," he said. "No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5 percent of Americans would sign up."
Obama called for a reasonable approach from both liberal Democrats who demand a public option and Republicans and some moderate Democrats who oppose the provision.
"To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it," he said. "The public option is only a means to that end - and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.
"And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have."
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