Obama Pitches Health Care Overhaul In Wisconsin

President Obama paid a quick visit to Green Bay, Wis., Thursday, pitching his health care overhaul and taking town-hall questions in a high school gym. The president said Americans happy with their doctors or their health care plans ought to be able to keep them, but that costs had to come down, and coverage had to be extended to all.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Renee Montagne is away today.

A single issue now dominates the vast and complicated debate over health care. It's whether the government should offer to sell you a health insurance. Private insurance companies, health care lobbyists and lawmakers on all sides have shown intense interest. So we're going to spend some time this morning asking how it matters to you and your health care. We start in Green Bay, Wisconsin. That's where the issue came up when President Obama held a town hall meeting.

NPR National political correspondent Mara Liasson was there.

MARA LIASSON: As the president's motorcade traveled the short distance from the Green Bay airport to Southwest High School, it encountered something unusual -several hundred protesters holding up signs that read No Socialism and Taxed Enough Yet? This is the sentiment that is fueling the opposition to a lot of the Obama administration's interventions in the market, from the banks to the auto industry, and right now it's focused on his ideas about a public health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. At the town hall meeting yesterday, Mr. Obama pushed back.

President BARACK OBAMA: So what you've heard is some folks on the other side saying I'm opposed to a public option because that's going to lead to government running your health care system. Now, I don't know how clearly I can say this, but let me try to repeat it. If you've got health insurance that you're happy with through the private sector, then we are not going to force you to do anything.

LIASSON: The president said a public plan is needed as an alternative for people who don't have insurance or who can't afford the kind of plan they want.

Pres. OBAMA: And the reason is not because we want a government takeover of health care. I've already said it. If you've got a private plan that works for you, that's great. But we want some competition. If the private insurance companies have to compete with a public option, it will keep them honest and it will keep, help keep their prices down.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: Up until now, President Obama has confined himself to broad principles for a health care overhaul, leaving the details to Congress, but he could no longer avoid the one detail that's emerged as the biggest obstacle to health care legislation. Republicans oppose a public plan, so does the American Medical Association, the country's biggest doctors lobby. And even more perilous for the president, so do many moderate Democrats in Congress whose votes he needs to pass a bill. Senate negotiators are trying to come up with a bipartisan compromise to solve the public plan impasse.

The latest alternative would be a system of non-profit health insurance cooperatives modeled after rural agriculture co-ops. The co-ops would compete with private insurers, but they wouldn't be run by the government, and that might meet the objections of some Republicans and moderate Democrats. The president hasn't said anything about this or any of the other versions of a public plan floating around Capitol Hill, but yesterday he said he would be flexible and let Congress take the lead.

Pres. OBAMA: Now, how this debate is going to evolve over the next eight weeks, I'm very open-minded. And if people can show me here's a good idea and here's how we can get it done and it's not something I've thought of, I'm happy to steal people's ideas. You know, I'm not ideologically driven one way or another about it.

LIASSON: The president said he was open to all ideas except one that some prominent Republican senators have been suggesting - putting off the issue until fall or later. Sounding like he was on the campaign trail again, Mr. Obama tried to create a sense of urgency for the crowd of 1,600 people in the Southwest High School gym.

Pres. OBAMA: This next eight weeks is going to be critical though, and you need to be really paying attention and putting pressure on your members of Congress to say there's no excuses, if we don't get it done this year, we're probably not going to get it done.

LIASSON: And getting it done is what matters most. As the president's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has said, the White House is willing to compromise on anything except success.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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