WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has invited a broad group of doctors, patients, business owners and insurers to a White House forum on health care in hopes of building support for big changes.
Some of the 120 people invited to Thursday’s event helped kill the Clinton administration’s health care overhaul in the 1990s. Everybody is supposed to be on his best behavior, but will that last?
“This is a different day, ” said Chip Kahn, a hospital lobbyist who opposed President Bill Clinton’s plan and was to attend Thursday’s gathering. “I think among most of the stakeholders, everyone wants to see this work. There is a tremendous feeling that it’s time.” Now president of the Federation of American Hospitals, Kahn worked for the insurance industry in the Clinton years.
The difference this time is that health care costs have become unsustainable, particularly in a sinking economy, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.
“Our budget, state budgets, family budgets, business budgets, are being overwhelmed by these costs,” Gibbs said. Unlike the Clinton administration, which labored to produce a 1,300-page bill, Obama is letting Congress take the lead on filling in the details. He has set broad goals: reduce costs, expand coverage, improve quality.
In support of Obama’s efforts, activists have mobilized to keep the pressure on Congress to pass legislation this year.
“It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a gabfest,” Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said about the Obama’s meeting. “It’s an effort to keep the momentum going. The details are not going to be worked in two or three hours at a White House summit.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who will play a leading role in writing health care legislation, raised questions about the administration’s proposed $634 billion “down payment” for expanded coverage.
Half that money is to come from cuts in government health programs and half from tax increases over a 10-year period. The government will spend trillions on health care over the same period.
“My concern, frankly, is the viability of the down payment and how it will help Congress contain the costs associated with reforming the health care system,” Baucus said in a statement. “I think we need to look first for resources within the existing health care system. I encourage the administration to dig down deeper within the health care system to find savings.”
While not asked about Baucus’ statement, Gibbs acknowledged the task ahead is difficult and said the forum would mark “the beginning of a long, arduous process.”
The participants will hear from the president and discuss the issues of cost, coverage and quality.
“This is part of a larger process of people feeling each other out,” said health economist John Holahan of the Urban Institute, who was involved in a similar effort that succeeded in Massachusetts. “I imagine that a lot of what they’ll say is already known. What’s going to be more important is the stuff behind the scenes, which we may never know much about.”