Thursday, March 05, 2009

Obama summit eyes cure for U.S. health care woes

Obama summit eyes cure for U.S. health care woes

From Dan Lothian
CNN White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Obama administration is hosting a summit Thursday designed to cure a frustrated patient battling a persistent ailment: the United States and its rising health care costs.

President Obama will deliver opening remarks Thursday for a summit to overhaul health care.

President Obama will deliver opening remarks Thursday for a summit to overhaul health care.

The administration's health care summit will focus on reducing and containing costs as well as expanding coverage, one senior administration official said.

Doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical representatives, lawmakers and hospital officials are among the 150 people expected to take part in the gathering, which President Obama sees as a starting point in tackling the overhaul of health care.

"This isn't a luxury; this is a necessity," Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told CNN's "American Morning" on Thursday, explaining that health care reform is a must for the U.S. to get its "economic ship steady."

"Health care costs are exploding. Many people are bringing in less income every month and seeing their premiums go up at the same time. It's affecting the bottom line and businesses. It's also affecting the fiscal well-being of our country," Barnes said..

"So this is something we have to do, because of the tough economic times, and we feel like we've learned lessons from the past that are going to help us get health care reform on the president's desk for his signature this year."

The new health and human services secretary nominee, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, will not be in attendance, but Nancy-Ann DeParle, the newly announced health care czar, is expected to be there.

As director of the White House Office on Health Reform, DeParle will work with Sebelius as the president's point person coordinating outreach to Congress on the ambitious health care reform agenda.

Obama's first pick for the HHS post, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, withdrew last month after questions arose about his failure to pay about $100,000 in taxes that he owed on a car and driver loaned to him by a friend and business partner.

The Daschle situation slowed down the momentum on overhauling health care.

The administration has decided to move ahead with this summit even without Sebelius, because Obama has "been committed to starting this process as quickly as possible," the senior administration official said Wednesday, adding that officials want "get this done in a year."

The administration said Sebelius -- who will remain Kansas governor until the Senate confirms her -- is in the process of "transitioning" to Washington.

Another senior administration source said Wednesday officials realize that this is an "ambitious timeline," and that "we've put a lot on the grill," but that they think it's a critical issue that needs immediate attention.

Obama will deliver opening remarks at the session.

"The cost of health care now causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds. By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes," according to an excerpt of his opening remarks released by the White House.

"If we want to create jobs and rebuild our economy, then we must address the crushing cost of health care this year, in this administration. Making investments in reform now, investments that will dramatically lower costs, won't add to our budget deficits in the long term -- rather, it is one of the best ways to reduce them," another excerpt said.

After Obama speaks, attendees will break into five groups.

DeParle and top economic advisers, such as Lawrence Summers, Peter Orszag and Christina Romer, are expected to be moderators of those sessions. After those groups meet, the participants will gather, and Obama will take questions, much like he did during the recent fiscal responsibility summit.

Among other things, Obama is seeking to set aside $634 billion in a health-care reserve fund over the next 10 years to help move the country closer to the goal of universal coverage. He also would require senior citizens making more than $170,000 annually to pay a greater share of their prescription drug costs under Medicare.

Barnes said the summit -- which will include Republicans and Democrats -- will work toward a bipartisan policy. The administration wants to "figure out how to make sure we have the money necessary to get health care reform this year."

Asked how the administration will guarantee that lobbyists and drug companies won't shape America's health care agenda, Barnes said that Obama has consistently said that "everybody can have a seat at the table, but no one can own the table."

"That's why we're bringing in the doctors, the nurses, hospitals, people who fought health care reform tooth and nail 15 years ago to have this conversation with the president and members of Congress," she said.

"But at the same time, while we're listening to their voices, we also want to make sure that we get the best deal for the American people. Those are the people that we're concerned about; we're concerned about their exploding health care costs. We're going to make sure that gets taken care of. "

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