WASHINGTON BUREAU — President Obama today renewed his attack on health insurers as House Democrats prepared to take a tough vote on a new health bill.

“Every year, insurance companies deny more people coverage because they have a preexisting condition,” Obama said today at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. “Every year, they drop more people’s coverage when they’re sick and need it most. Every year, they raise premiums higher and higher.”

Obama also will be making a health bill speech later this week in Missouri.

He wants the House to vote on his health bill before March 18, when he plans to leave for an overseas trip.

“The price of health care is one of the most punishing costs for families, and for businesses, and for our government,” Obama said. “It’s forcing people to cut back or go without health insurance. It forces small businesses to choose between hiring or health care. It’s plunging the federal government deeper and deeper and deeper into debt.”

Some of the highest uninsurance rates are among young people, and insurance companies “continue to ration health care based on who’s sick and who’s healthy; on who can pay and who can’t pay,” Obama said. “That’s the status quo in America, and it is a status quo that is unsustainable for this country. We can’t have a system that works better for the insurance companies than it does for the American people. That’s why we need to pass health care reform — not next year, not 5 years from now, not 10 years from now, but now.”

Regarding those who ask about the political cost of acting now, Obama said, “My question to them is: When is the right time? If not now, when? If not us, who?

“We have debated health care in Washington for more than a year. Every proposal has been put on the table. Every argument has been made. I know a lot of people view this as a partisan issue, but both parties have found areas where we agree.”

He argued that the bill he is seeking to move through the House is based predominately on the Senate health bill and incorporates the best ideas from both the Democrats and the Republicans.

Meanwhile, 22 Senate Democrats have signed a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to schedule a vote on legislation that would repeal the antitrust exemption currently afforded health insurers under the McCarran-Ferguson Act.

A similar antitrust exemption repeal bill, H.R. 4626, passed the House recently with a 406-19 vote.

Health insurers contend that the antitrust exemption has no effect on their mergers, acquisitions and pricing decisions, and that it has little effect on their everyday operations.

But the senators who have signed the antitrust legislation letter say repealing the antitrust exemption afforded health insurers would be “an important step toward bringing competition to the health insurance market, and would ensure that anticompetitive abuses such as price fixing and monopolization are policed in the health insurance industry.”

“Federal oversight of competition in the health insurance industry is necessary to ensure that consumers are not paying higher prices as the result of anticompetitive conduct,” the senators assert.

Among those signing the letter are Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., the former chairman of the committee under Republican rule; and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.