by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers
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President Obama yesterday kicked off his ambitious goal of reforming health care and providing insurance to all Americans, the first major government effort at reform in 15 years. At the White House's health summit, Obama pledged to pass comprehensive legislation this year, despite economic crises and U.S. engagement in two overseas wars. "When times were good, we didn't get it done. When we had mild recessions, we didn't get it done," Obama said. "There's always a reason not to do it. Now is exactly the time for us to deal with this problem." Indeed, with increasing job losses, approximately 14,000 Americans are losing their health coverage every day. Forty-six million Americans are without health insurance (86.7 million over the last two years), while others are paying more than they can afford. The health care cost share of GDP "is anticipated to rise rapidly from 16.2 percent in 2007 to 17.6 percent in 2009, largely as a result of the recession, and then climb to 20.3 percent by 2018." Referring to a statement made by Health Care for America Now's Richard Kirsch, Obama addressed the cost issue, arguing that "by covering more people, we can also lower costs at the same time, presumably because those who are not insured at the moment are ending up using extraordinarily expensive emergency room care." In his new budget, Obama plans to set aside $634 billion over 10 years as a down payment to reform the health system. While the fund represents a strong start toward reform, it will not be enough to provide affordable coverage for all and a stronger commitment will need to be made. But Obama also "indicated for the first time that he was open to compromise on details of the proposal he put forth in the 2008 campaign." Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) -- who has spent decades as a champion of expanding access to quality health care -- said at yesterday's summit that previous efforts to reform health care "haven't been the kind of serious effort that I think we're seeing right now." "This time, we will not fail," he urged.
THIS IS NOT THE 1990s: A number of interests groups, led by the health insurance lobby, effectively killed major reform when President Clinton led the last effort to seriously overhaul the nation's health care system in the early 1990s. Today, however, "insurers, drugmakers, doctors, hospitals and employers, as well as consumers, are more optimistic that a prescription can be found," and have joined the vast effort, mainly with the common interest of driving down costs. "The stakeholder community is no longer organizing to say 'no,'" said Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). Indeed, Obama was surrounded at yesterday's summit "by men and women who made their careers killing health-care reform." Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), who "proudly reminded" attendees that he was instrumental in killing Clinton's reform plan in the 1990s, "announced that he supported the principles that have been outlined by Obama." Insurance lobbyist Chip Kahn, who also helped kill Clinton's plan with his infamous "Harry and Louise" TV ads, praised Obama for arranging the bipartisan summit, adding that Obama "successfully launched the process we need to achieve health reform, which we all want." AHIP also strongly opposed Clinton's efforts, but yesterday, Ignagni told Obama, "You have our commitment to play, to contribute and to help pass health-care reform this year."
STILL OPPOSITION TO REFORM: Despite Ignagni's pledge, Time Magazine's Karen Tumulty said that in a "break-out session" yesterday at the summit, the AHIP president made "one of the more radical" proposals for getting reform enacted, "which is to take most of this out of the hands of Congress, set up a commission...to come up with a plan and present it to Congress on a sort-of take it or leave it basis." The Wonk Room's Igor Volsky, was who also at the summit, noted that the insurance industry may believe "that it can get a better deal out of (and have more influence over) some kind of commission." One group is already rallying opposition to Obama's agenda: the Conservatives for Patients' Rights (CPR) and its leader Rick Scott, a health care entrepreneur who once pledged to run hospitals more like McDonald's. CPR's obstruction started yesterday when the group took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post, recycling the right's talking points and accusing Obama of providing "virtually no details" of his health plan. The ad asked the president to share the details of his plan to "allay our fears and end the speculation." Obama's and Sen. Max Baucus's (D-MT) health plans are available for download on CPR's own website. Moreover, obstructionists in the media are starting to rev their engines as well, with many right-wingers, like de-facto GOP leader Rush Limbaugh, charging that Obama is on a "relentless drive toward socialized medicine." As Media Matters noted, such statements are "neither accurate nor original." In fact, "socialized medicine in its purest form is difficult to come by in the real world," observed the Center for American Progress. The Urban Institute wrote in an April 2008 analysis, "socialized medicine involves government financing and direct provision of health care services," and therefore, progressive health-care reform proposals do not "fit this description."
DR. DEAN WEIGHS IN: In an interview with The Progress Report this week, former Vermont governor Howard Dean outlined the principles he believes should guide the health care reform debate. He argued against a single-payer system, against an individual mandate, and for extending free health care to all Americans under the age of 25. Dean also expressed support for building upon the existing employer-based health care system by giving Americans the choice of keeping their existing insurance plan or enrolling in a new public option. "People hate the health care system, but they love their own doctor and they pretty much like the care they get," he explained. "So what you cannot do is create some system that is going to scare people." Dean argued that free choice and competition should be the cornerstones of health reform. "The brilliance of Barack Obama's plan on the campaign trail was a) no one has to change if they like what they've got and b) if you want to, you could essentially buy into Medicare," Dean said. "I don't think we should impose a single payer on everybody, but I do think we should give Americans the choice of having one if they like it. If it works for them, that's what they'll choose; if it doesn't work for them, they'll choose the private sector."