Obama Calls For Swift Action On Health Care

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Health care is a major legislative priority for the Obama administration. Looking to overhaul the nation's health care system, President Barack Obama met Thursday with key figures from across the political, business and medical constituencies.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

An array of government and private industry power players converged on the White House today. They were summoned by President Obama to talk health care. Among those present was Senator Edward Kennedy, long an advocate of universal health care. He had come straight from Florida where he's undergoing treatment for cancer. Both the president and the senator urged all present to find a plan that controls costs, improves quality, expands access and to get it all done this year.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The president said getting health care costs under control is the key to creating jobs and rebuilding our economy. And he offered some scary statistics. In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. The cost of health care causes a bankruptcy on average once every 30 seconds. He said health care costs are sinking business, eating up family budgets and threatening the federal budget. And he acknowledged that Washington has tried and failed many times to fix this problem.

President BARACK OBAMA: This time there is no debate about whether all Americans should have quality affordable health care. The only question is how? And the purpose of this forum is to start answering that question, to determine how we lower costs for everyone, improve quality for everyone and expand coverage to all Americans. And our goal will be to enact comprehensive health care reform by the end of this year. That is our commitment. That is our goal.

LIASSON: But, as always, there is more agreement on the problem than on a particular solution. In the breakout sessions, representatives of interest groups exchanged views on several contentious questions. Should there be a mandate? How should it be enforced? How much change to force an employer-provided health insurance? On that last point, Ken Powell, the CEO of General Mills, spoke for the business roundtable and made it clear his members don't want a lot of change.

Mr. KEN POWELL (CEO, General Mills): First of all, it's part of our proposition to our employees. I mean, we believe that strong health care coverage, wellness prevention, these sorts of things help us recruit and retain people. In General Mills it's part of our competitive strategy. We also want to do it because we think we're good at it.

LIASSON: The big lesson from the Clintons' 1993 attempt to overhaul health care was the people who have insurance worry about changes the government might make. So the president today promised his plan wouldn't rock that boat.

Pres. OBAMA: I think most of us would agree that if we want to cover all Americans, we can't make the mistake of trying to fix what isn't broken. So if somebody has insurance they like, they should be able to keep that insurance. If they have a doctor that they like, they should be able to keep their doctor. They should just pay less for the care that they receive.

LIASSON: But others worry that if another part of the president's plan is enacted, creating a public insurance entity that would compete with private insurers, too many employers would dump their employees onto the government plan. Private insurance companies don't like that idea at all. Karen Ignagni is the president of a health insurance trade group. Here's what she said about the idea of a public plan in an interview before coming to the meeting.

Ms. KAREN IGNAGNI (President, America's Health Insurance Plans): We have concerns about an unlevel playing field and being asked to compete in a way that would virtually ensure there was no opportunity for private sector and the public sector to work together.

LIASSON: And that's just one of the difficult issues that congress and everyone else involved will have to resolve before passing a comprehensive health care overhaul. Still, President Obama was optimistic it could be done this year.

Pres. OBAMA: And what a remarkable achievement that would be. Something that Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, consumer groups and providers, all of us could share extraordinary pride in finally dealing with something that has been vexing us for so long. So let's get to work. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: The White House and congressional Democrats want to get this done as fast as they can, by Labor Day, if possible, because they know after that, with the economy heading down, and the 2010 election season heating up, their window of political opportunity may start closing fast.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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