March 5, 2009 -- President Barack Obama cast his sweeping health care reform plans in terms of help for the faltering economy at a White House forum.
The president told a group of lawmakers, doctors, health industry representatives, and patient advocates that controlling health costs was vital to getting American households and businesses back on their feet. He said the administration will seek to enact new laws expanding health coverage and controlling costs "by the end of this year."
"By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation's balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It's not even close," the president told the group in an East Room speech at the beginning of the conference.
Obama has already proposed to set aside more than $630 billion over the next decade to help fund reform efforts, which could include subsidized insurance for middle-income people who can't afford premiums and an expanded coverage through Medicaid or Medicare.
Beyond that, reform plans remain sketchy. Thursday's White House forum was more of a confidence-building exercise than a policy debate. Lawmakers from both parties met with White House officials, business CEOs, consumer advocates, and medical society presidents to air their priorities in front of TV cameras.
White House officials say they're mindful of the failure of a Clinton Administration health reform effort in 1994. Lawmakers, including many in President Clinton's own party, rebelled when the White House tried to push through sweeping reforms with what was seen as little consultation from Capitol Hill or industry stakeholders.
"We are not going to Congress with a preset plan," said Melody Barnes, the White House domestic policy advisory. "The process has to be transparent," she said in an interview with the C-SPAN television network.
Participants in organized side discussions at the conference talked about topics that included preventive medicine and wellness programs, reform of payment incentives for doctors and hospitals, expansion of medical research, and improvement of childhood nutrition.
"We actually have to put prevention into the system from the beginning," said Daniel Smith, president and CEO of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
The White House outreach effort earned early -- though guarded -- praise from key Republicans, many of whom were instrumental in opposing the Clinton Administration's reform efforts.
"If this is real, that's great," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which presides over large parts of the health care industry. "If this is a real process and we're listened to then folks like me will really participate," he said.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., senior Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said the political parties already agree on 80% of the policies needed to control health costs and expand access to insurance.
"The other 20% is the part that's been in the weeds for the last 12 or 15 years," he said. "What you have to do with that other 20% is find a third way and that's what we're going to have to do on health care."