Obama: Crushing Health Care Costs Must Be Fixed
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And Im Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Some of the people at the White House yesterday must have felt like it was homecoming week. They were veterans of a failed effort to change the health-care system in the 1990s. And they got invitations to join a discussion of President Obamas plan to try again. Whatever the details turn out to be, the proposal is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And in a moment, well hear the debate over how to pay the bills. We begin with NPRs Julie Rovner, who attended the White House health summit.
JULIE ROVNER: The president opened the meeting by challenging the assembled members of Congress and representatives of health-care interest groups with whats becoming a familiar refrain.
President BARACK OBAMA: Health care reform is no longer just a moral imperative, its 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.
ROVNER: Armed with their marching orders, the group of about 120 broke into smaller sessions to share opinions and ideas under the guidance of top administration officials. Sometimes they didnt exactly stick to the script, said West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, but he didnt think that was much of a problem.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): It was very open and people got off their chests what they wanted to say.
ROVNER: Despite what President Obamas chief economic advisor had planned
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: And, you know, Larry Summers said, now, these are the three things I want to talk about. People went right ahead and talked about what they wanted to talk about, which is exactly what it was for.
ROVNER: Rockefeller, a veteran of the unsuccessful effort to make over health care during the Clinton administration, says just having a session like yesterday shows how differently President Obama is handling the health- care effort.
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Last time, it was kind of handed to us. This time, I think its a real - and hes literally said, Im not going to tell you what to do. Here is 634 billion. Thats not going to do the whole thing. But its the biggest start youve ever had in your whole life on health care.
ROVNER: That $634 billion is the amount of money President Obama is proposing in his budget, calling it a down payment on a health overhaul bill. But its not just the administrations handling of the issue that has veterans at the last health-care effort more optimistic. Its because the health-care system is in a much sorrier state, and more people are demanding change. Back in 1993, pediatrician and researcher Erwin Redlinner(ph)was one of the so-called worker bees on the Clinton reform effort, in charge of bringing doctors into the process.
Dr. ERWIN REDWINNER (Pediatrician): And it was a painful process, I must say. We had situations like the pediatricians and the family doctors not agreeing on how many well-child visits we should have in a basic coverage package and so forth.
ROVNER: But today thats all different, he says.
Dr. REDWINNER: Physicians are clamoring for important health-care reform because the practice of medicine has been almost completely destroyed by the system, which is out of control in terms of cost, the ability to practice quality care medicine, and I think doctors have realized that.
ROVNER: But beneath the surface consensus and promises to work together lurk the seeds of serious discord. When the group reconvened in the White House East Room late in the afternoon, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley mentioned one of the issues that troubled those in his party the most. Its the Democrats' idea of creating a public health insurance plan that people could join instead of private insurance.
Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): There is a lot of us that feel that the public option, that the government is an unfair competitor, and we have to keep what we have now strong and make it stronger.
ROVNER: Although he continued to defend what was a key piece of his health platform, President Obama took Grassleys complaint to heart.
President OBAMA: I recognize that theres that concern. I think its a serious one and a real one, and well make sure that it gets addressed.
ROVNER: The presidents apparent flexibility is another thing observers are pointing to as making this time around different from the last time. But Chip Kahn, who helped kill the Clinton plan as an insurance industry lobbyist and now represents the hospital industry, says not to get too optimistic.
Mr. CHIP KAHN (Federation of American Hospitals): I think the presidents had a tremendous impact in providing leadership, setting out some basic parameters its really hard to disagree with, and so I think were on the right path, but this is only the first 15 minutes of a three-act play, and its the first act.
ROVNER: The drama now moves to Capitol Hill, where the Senate Finance Committee is promising action later this spring.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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