Obama Convenes Health Care Summit

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The Obama administration is holding a meeting today at the White House with key players in the health care debate. They will look at ways of overhauling the nation's system of providing medical care.

ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, 200 bands, 15 bars and four nights of pure bliss in the nation's car capital, Detroit. That's coming up.

COHEN: But first, at the White House today, President Obama is hosting a summit on health care. It's a chance to talk about cutting costs, improving quality and expanding coverage for the 48 million Americans who don't have health insurance. Attending today's summit is a broad cross section of doctors, patients, business people and insurance providers. Let's take a listen to what the president had to say.

(Soundbite of speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: Health-care reform is no longer just a moral imperative. It's a fiscal imperative. If we want to create jobs and rebuild our economy and get our federal budget under control, then we have to address the crushing costs of health care this year in this administration.

COHEN: Attending today's summit is a broad cross-section of doctors, patients, businesspeople, and insurance providers. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us know. And Scott, a number of folks there today are the same people involved in the last big push to overhaul health care during the Clinton administration. What makes this effort different from that one, which didn't pan out?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, that's right, Alex. There's people both who fought for health care overhaul and against it during the early '90s. And remember back then, we were concerned because health care was eating up too much of our economy. There were too many people without insurance. It was putting American business at an economic disadvantage. It was causing the government too much money. On every one of those measures, the situation is worse now than it was in the early '90s. So, what the president is saying has changed is that there is now pretty much universal agreement that the status quo is unsustainable, that something has to be done. He says the only disagreement is how to fix things. Of course, that's a pretty major disagreement and it's one that the administration and Congress will be wrestling with.

COHEN: Congress already has so much on its plate. Why tackle this topic now?

HORSLEY: Well, part of it is this was an issue that the president campaigned on, fixing the health care system and he wants to sort of strike while the iron is hot. He is enjoying great popularity now and he wants to not let that go to waste. Also, he says that despite the tough economic times that we're in, really fixing the health-care system would be an economic boon. And so it ought to be done, not in spite of the tough economic times, the tough fiscal situation, but in part because of the tough economic times, and this would actually help the economy, help the government's long term fiscal situation. In order to get to that point though, in order to ultimately save money, he says the government needs to spend money upfront. And that's why in his budget, he has set aside more than $600 billion as what he calls a down payment on health care reform.

COHEN: That's a pretty big down payment. I imagine they'll be talking about it today and there are some concerns about it.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. About half of that down payment would come from limiting the tax deduction that wealthy families can take for itemized expenses. For example, now, if someone making - a family making more than a quarter million dollars gives a dollar to charity, they're able to deduct 33 or 35 percent on their taxes. The president wants to cap that deduction at 28 percent, effectively making it more expensive for wealthy families to make contributions to charity or to make mortgage interest payments on their home. The administration argues, hey, that just puts those families on the same plane as middle class families or working class families who get a smaller deduction because they pay a smaller marginal tax rate. The counter argument though from the housing industry and from some charities is that, hey, if you limit that deduction, it's just going to put more downward pressure on home prices when they don't need it and it might make people less inclined to give to charities at a time when charities are already seeing pressure on their contributions from the down economy.

COHEN: So, if not from tax deductions, where else might funding come from?

HORSLEY: Well, Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee suggested this week that maybe the government ought to look at limiting the tax advantages on health insurance that's provided by employers. Right now, if you get health care through your employer, that benefit is tax-free. This was something though that was very contentious during the presidential campaign. Then candidate Obama accused Senator McCain, his rival, of wanting to tax employer-provided health care benefits. At this point, though, the administration is saying they're willing to consider lots of different options. That doesn't mean they really want to do any of them. The only thing that the president says is no longer on the table is the status quo.

COHEN: So, Scott, there is this summit today - at the end of the day. Will anything concrete come out of this?

HORSLEY: I don't think so, Alex. I think the administration doesn't really want to have a concrete plan. What they want to have is a conversation and then send to Congress some broad principles to get the dialogue started.

COHEN: NPR's Scott Horsley, thank you.

HORSLEY: It's my pleasure, Alex.

COHEN: More coming up on Day to Day from NPR News.

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