The President’s weekly message this week has generated more attention than a lot of the others, because it features him taking his hardest edge yet against the health insurance industry – the kind of message that progressives have wanted him to deliver for some time now.

This is the unsustainable path we’re on, and it’s the path the insurers want to keep us on. In fact, the insurance industry is rolling out the big guns and breaking open their massive war chest – to marshal their forces for one last fight to save the status quo. They’re filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest ads. They’re flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists and campaign contributions. And they’re funding studies designed to mislead the American people.

Of course, like clockwork, we’ve seen folks on cable television who know better, waving these industry-funded studies in the air. We’ve seen industry insiders – and their apologists – citing these studies as proof of claims that just aren’t true. They’ll claim that premiums will go up under reform; but they know that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that reforms will lower premiums in a new insurance exchange while offering consumer protections that will limit out-of-pocket costs and prevent discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. They’ll claim that you’ll have to pay more out of pocket; but they know that this is based on a study that willfully ignores whole sections of the bill, including tax credits and cost savings that will greatly benefit middle class families. Even the authors of one of these studies have now admitted publicly that the insurance companies actually asked them to do an incomplete job.

It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s bogus. And it’s all too familiar.

Later on in the address, the President mentions the insurance industry’s anti-trust exemption, once again raising the possibility that it would be repealed in this round of reform.

And they’re earning these profits and bonuses while enjoying a privileged exception from our anti-trust laws, a matter that Congress is rightfully reviewing.

The House Judiciary Committee will actually tackle this issue in the coming week, by marking up the “Health Insurance Industry Antitrust Enforcement Act of 2009,” a bill that would repeal the exemption, on Wednesday. John Conyers, the chair of the Committee, said, “These abuses are plainly illegal in other industries, and it does not make sense, when Congress is working so hard to bring meaningful reform to the market in health insurance, that health insurers should continue to be exempted from federal antitrust oversight.” And Nancy Pelosi expressed support for the measure at her press conference on Thursday. I’d say the chances of repeal being inserted into the final health care bill have gone up to at least 50/50.

The White House has been nudging in the direction of painting the insurance industry as a villain in this debate for several weeks now. But this is a full frontal assault, clearly in reaction to the flawed industry reports and attack ads designed to scare seniors that we’ve seen this week.

Of course, if the niceties have ended and the deals faded, then the President could actually make insurers REALLY uncomfortable through actions and not words, by supporting competition for them through a public option and demanding its inclusion in any bill.

David Dayen

David Dayen