President Barack Obama's chief of health programs for the elderly and poor on Thursday said the year-old U.S. healthcare overhaul was helping millions of Americans and called a push by congressional Republicans to repeal the law unfortunate.

Medicare and Medicaid services administrator Donald Berwick, appearing before a congressional panel, defended the embattled healthcare overhaul, saying it was helping keep Medicare premiums and cost-sharing lower and it was helping shore up finances of the health program for the elderly.

"This law means real improvements for Medicare beneficiaries, now and in the future," Berwick said in testimony prepared for delivery to the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. "That's why the House vote to repeal this law was unfortunate."

Berwick's defense of Obama's healthcare overhaul comes as House Republicans push to deny funding for its implementation after failing to get the Democratic-led Senate to go along with the full repeal voted by the House last month.

A measure blocking funding for the law is expected to be taken up by the Republican-led House next week.

"In talking to people from around the country and reading the letters I've received, I've learned firsthand how the law is giving Americans more freedom in their health care choices and more security in their coverage," Berwick said.

He said the law was giving the elderly greater cost relief on prescription drugs and more access to preventive care.

Republicans doubt administration claims that the law means better care and estimates that it will help reduce budget deficits, which are driven in part by rising costs of healthcare programs.
Republicans say planned cuts to the Medicare Advantage program, which uses private insurance providers such as Humana Inc and UnitedHealth Group Inc to deliver services, will lead to benefit cuts.

Berwick said enrollment in those programs has gone up while premiums have gone down since the law was enacted.

"In 2011, premiums are lower and enrollment is projected to be higher than ever before," he said.