WASHINGTON BUREAU — The head of America’s Health Insurance Plans today asked Congress and the Obama administration to “turn away from vilification” and work with insurers to draft better health reform legislation.

AHIP President Karen Ignagni made the remarks here as AHIP began its annual National Policy Forum.

AHIP is holding the meeting as member insurers face blistering attacks by President Obama and other health bill advocates.

Obama said Monday during a speech near Philadelphia that insurers are denying coverage to more people with preexisting conditions every year, and dropping the coverage of more people when those people are sick.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has sent a letter to 5 large health insurers asking them to publicly justify their recent rate increases.

Health insurers “strongly support health care reform because we recognize that the current system is unsustainable,” Ignagni said today at the forum. “The current debate about rising premiums has demonstrated that, in fact, we have a health care cost crisis in this country.”

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

The goal of AHIP’s policy forum 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,” Ignagni said.

She defended the industry, saying that, more than a year ago, the industry proposed “robust insurance market reforms” that would guarantee coverage for pre-existing conditions.

“We offered comprehensive solutions to bend the cost curve and put our health care system on a sustainable and fiscally-responsible path,” Ignagni said. “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.”

In related news, AHIP has joined with 10 other employer and insurer organizations, including groups such as the American Benefits Council, Washington, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington, to ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to push back the current effective dates for many changes in the pending health care reform legislation.

A revised implementation schedule would “help minimize disruption and ensure a smooth transition for employees, plan participants and customers,” the groups write.

Many of the proposed changes would require new government regulations, state law changes, state insurance department approval and guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the groups write.

“At an absolute minimum, the effective dates should be no sooner than plan years beginning 12 months after enactment of the legislation with a safe harbor for plan sponsors and health plans that have acted in good faith compliance with the new law,” the groups write.