President Obama's healthcare "summit" this week is designed to jump-start the political process and help move Congress toward comprehensive healthcare reform this year.
Another sign that the administration is ready to push the process as fast as possible is Obama's announcement Monday filling two key jobs. He nominated Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to be secretary of health and human services. And for the new White House Office for Health Reform, he named a former Clinton administration staffer, Nancy-Ann DeParle, who had headed the Health Care Financing Administration (now known as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services). Originally, Obama wanted former Sen. Tom Daschle for both positions, but Daschle withdrew because of tax problems.
Obama's current healthcare plan is only the start of a long-range effort to overhaul the entire healthcare system, according to senior administration officials. Obama has proposed setting aside a $634 billion, 10-year reserve fund to help pay for universal coverage and strengthen the system. His philosophy is, "I'm going to make a down payment and put some skin in the game," says a principal White House adviser.
Obama plans to work closely with members of both parties in Congress to win enactment of a healthcare overhaul "by the end of the year," the official says.
Obama is convinced that the nation is eager for the White House and Congress to take on the issue—more so than at the start of the Clinton administration in 1993, when the last effort at comprehensive reform failed. On Thursday, he will preside over his White House summit on healthcare policy, which will include lawmakers, representatives of the healthcare and insurance industries, and others with a stake in the policy changes.
"Stakeholders" who fought reform 15 years ago "now are part of the conversation," says the official, who is at the center of formulating White House strategy. Among those now trying to find an answer are business leaders, insurers, and drug companies—and all of them are seeing that the current system is unsustainable if the economy is to rebound. At least that's the White House's theory.
The official also says that not only do Democratic leaders such as Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Max Baucus of Montana, and Ron Wyden of Oregon want fast action, but key Republicans do, too. GOP players such as Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Mike Enzi of Wyoming seem willing to compromise to get a bill through, in the view of White House strategists.
Obama's goals include universality (an estimated 46 million Americans currently lack health coverage), driving down costs, fiscal stability, and having the system sustain itself. And he is committed to working with all sides. "You can't just talk to your typical allies," the official says.
To Obama, the issue is personal, administration officials say. His mother died of cancer, Obama has said, and she had to worry too much about getting adequate care and paying her bills. However, White House strategists admit that there are so many special interests involved, and so many Americans aren't sure which proposals make the most sense, that the battle over healthcare reform will remain a tough struggle.
- Read more about President Obama's actions.