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White House Healthcare Summit: Obama Calls on All Sectors to Cut Costs

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, March 5, 2009

President Barack Obama on Thursday told key stakeholders in the healthcare reform debate that there should be no "sacred cows" in the discussion on healthcare reform, which he said will require sacrifices from everyone involved to address the "exploding cost of healthcare in America today."

"Healthcare reform is no longer just a moral imperative, it is a fiscal imperative," Obama said, in opening remarks at the White House summit on healthcare. "If we want to create jobs and rebuild our economy, then we have to address the crushing cost of healthcare 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—in fact maybe the only way to reduce those long term costs."

About 150 people from the across the healthcare spectrum, as well as labor and business leaders, and Congressional Republicans and Democrats were called to the half-day summit.

Obama told the group that he wants to sign a healthcare reform bill this year and that every idea will be considered. "There should be no sacred cows. Each of us must accept that none of us will get everything we want, and no proposal for reform will be perfect. If that is the measure, we will never get anything done," he says. "But when it comes to addressing our healthcare challenge, we can no longer let the perfect be the enemy of the essential."

He also warned against anyone who would attempt to sabotage or delay the reforms. "While everyone has a right to take part in this discussion, no one has the right to take it over. The status quo is the one option that is not on the table," he said. "Those who seek to block any reform at any cost will not prevail this time around. I did not come here to Washington to work for those interests."

Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the president came to the summit with no set plan for healthcare reform beyond a set of parameters. "He knows that we have to get costs down. He believes that we have to have a quality healthcare system that is accessible and affordable for everyone," she told C-SPAN. "At the same time, he is being very pragmatic about this. He wants to bring people around the table to hear what they have to say. Then we can start to work together with Congress to make sure we get the policy right."

The president included a $634 billion "down payment" over 10 years for healthcare reforms that could total more than $1 trillion in the budget he sent to Congress last week. "We know that is not enough to take care of the huge problem, but we are going to work with Congress to see how we can get the rest of the revenues or cost savings to afford the healthcare system the American people deserve, and at the same time work on the policy of healthcare reform," Barnes said.

Barnes reiterated that the president expects Congress to draft the healthcare legislation, not the White House, which she noted was a key difference between the Obama administration's efforts and President Bill Clinton's failed healthcare reforms of 16 years ago. "We are not going to Congress with a preset plan. We are open to what they have to say," Barnes says. "We are having a conversation with Congress and we are going to work with them as they write the bill."

Barnes says today's summit also demonstrates that Obama is committed to a transparent process. "Today the American people will be able to go to their television sets, they will be able to go to our Web site and listen to what the president and all the people in the room have to say," she says.

American Hospital Association President Richard J. Umbdenstock, who attended today's summit, said he told President Obama at last week's fiscal responsibility summit that the nation's hospitals will answer his call for "shared responsibility" as long as everybody else does too.

"We believe we have to be part of the solution, but so do vendors, suppliers, other providers, employers, and consumers themselves. It's not going to be solved by one approach or putting it on the shoulders of any one stakeholder," Umbdenstock told HealthLeaders Media.

"Hospitals are the ones that hold this somewhat broken and disjointed system together on Main Street day in and day out for America's communities and patients in need," he says. "We are calling for reform, but not just in the form of short-term payment cuts and reductions, that will just force the system to get more out of kilter and out of balance than it already is."

While the president has said he will consider every option, apparently, single-payer is off the table. Barnes said the president is not interested in a single-payer healthcare system. "The president believes that we have to build on the system that we have right now. He's said that maybe if we were starting from scratch that is what we'd do, but that isn't where we are," she said.


John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at jcommins@healthleadersmedia.com.

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