- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

President Obama on Thursday said that health care is a greater challenge to the country’s future than explosive government spending or long-term unfunded entitlements, and vowed to fix the problem this year as he kicked off a one-day health care summit at the White House.

Mr. Obama greeted roughly 150 representatives of stakeholders in the health care process — providers, insurers, and interest groups, and members of Congress — with a promise that by the end of the year he will have figured out how to guarantee affordable coverage for all Americans.

“The purpose of this forum is to start answering that question: to determine how we lower costs for everyone, improve quality for everyone, and expand coverage to all Americans,” Mr. Obama said during opening remarks in the East Room. “And our goal will be to enact comprehensive health care reform by the end of this year.”

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The White House said in a release that the forum was bringing together “those who worked to pass health care reform a decade ago and those who worked to defeat it.”

Attendees were set to break up into small groups to discuss solutions, followed by a dialogue with Mr. Obama to close the summit. The president’s summit on fiscal responsibility last week followed the same format.

Mr. Obama said that “the greatest threat to Americas fiscal health is not Social Security, though that’s a significant challenge.”

“It is not the investments weve made to rescue our economy during this crisis,” he said. “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 vowed that there would be no “sacred cows” in the discussion: “Every voice must be heard. Every idea must be considered. Every option must be on the table.”

He did lay out a few specifics that he wanted to achieve: people should not be overcharged for prescription drugs or discriminated against for preexisting conditions, he said, and “fraud, waste and abuse” in government programs should be eliminated.

An estimated 46 million Americans do not have health insurance.

As for those who do have coverage, Mr. Obama said that under his plan, “if somebody has insurance that they like, they should be able to keep that insurance, if they have a doctor they like, they can keep that doctor,” and that they would pay less for this care.

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for Americas Future, praised Mr. Obama for pursuing “a public health insurance option,” calling it “key to expanding coverage, controlling costs, and improving quality in health care.”

“The presidents plan says that people will have the choice to keep the health insurance they have or they can enroll in the new public plan or an approved private plan,’” Mr. Hickey said.

Those who do not think the government should run the healthcare system say that Mr. Obama is pursuing universal coverage through a piece-meal approach that expands insurance for children through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, increases coverage for Medicare recipients, and decreases incentives for businesses to provide coverage for everybody in between.

A group of Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, warned against this approach in a letter to Mr. Obama on Wednesday.

“Washington-run programs undermine market-based competition through their ability to impose price controls and shift costs to other purchasers. Forcing free market plans to compete with these government-run programs would create an unlevel playing field and inevitably doom true competition,” the letter said.

Ultimately, we would be left with a single government-run program controlling all of the market. This would take health care decisions out of the hands of doctors and patients and place them in the hands of another Washington bureaucracy.”

Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at The Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, said that talk of bipartisanship should not distract from what he said is the Obama administration’s desire for “greater government control over one-seventh of the U.S. economy and some of our most important, personal, and private decisions.”

“They favor individual and employer mandates, increased insurance regulation, middle-class subsidies, and a government-run system in competition with private insurance. On the other side are those who seek free market reforms and more consumer-centered health care,” Mr. Tanner said.

Republicans, who were skeptical that their ideas would be heard on previous issues, are dubious that the Democratic White House will compromise on health care, where conservatives and liberal often times come at the problem with fundamentally different points of view about the role of government in fixing the problem.

“Unfortunately, the beginning of the 111th Congress has been marked by an increasingly partisan and closed process in which health care reform is being addressed piecemeal, including in the stimulus legislation,” said the letter.

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