Following on the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement of its proposal for a $634 billion health care fund as part of its first budget, the White House opened its first health care reform summit today, March 5th.

That forum brought together health care reform advocates in Congress and congressional Republicans, the representatives of dozens of business groups, labor unions, health care associations and retirees groups, as well as academic experts and experienced activists.

In a teleconference with reporters prior to the summit, White House Domestic Policy Director Melody Barnes stated that the Obama administration’s health reform policy centers on three basic principles: expanding access, controlling skyrocketing costs and improving the quality of care.

Barnes added that the White House will not be sending Congress a bill to pass, but will allow the main actors and proponents of reform to put together their own legislative package. President Obama will look favorably on a bill that best adheres to his general principles.

‘The president wants to engage with Congress in a transparent and bipartisan fashion,’ said Barnes.

Still, the White House has elaborated some of the finer points it supports. Earlier in the week, the Obama administration talked about the need to expand the employment-based system by helping small businesses afford coverage and by allowing the government to take over catastrophic coverage from businesses owners. In addition, the White House Web site calls for providing a public option for individuals and families who lack coverage.

The White House also emphasized the need to require insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions. Said Barnes, ‘We can’t just treat those who are well.’ She also highlighted the president’s support for reform that emphasizes preventive and wellness and builds on the nation’s system of community health centers to eliminate geographical, class and racial biases built into the current system.

Barnes also rejected any notion that the White House has slighted advocates of a single-payer health care system like Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who has introduced a ‘Medicare-for-all’ bill in the House of Representatives. She said that Conyers, and others who share his views, had been invited a while back and that the president has long hoped Conyers would participate in the summit. ‘I am not aware of any controversy with regard to Rep. Conyers,’ she said.

Barnes suggested that while President Obama philosophically favors a single-payer plan, he has said that given the current political and financial circumstances, realistic reform will focus on expanding the employment-based system and providing additional options for working families struggling with insurance premiums and high prescription drug costs.

In his opening remarks to the White House summit, President Obama pointed out that over the past eight, years nine million people have joined the ranks of the uninsured, health insurance premiums grew faster than wages and bankruptcies caused by medical bills set new records.

Obama described the health care crisis as the ‘greatest threat’ the country faces economically and financially.

‘The problems we face today are the direct result of actions we failed to take yesterday,’ Obama said. ‘Since Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform nearly a century ago, we have talked and we have tinkered.’

Obama pointed out that Washington politics and industry lobbying have for far too long stalled meaningful reform. The public is understandably skeptical that as in the past special interests will block real reform, but today a new consensus has emerged that reform is more necessary than ever.

‘This time there is no debate about whether Americans should have affordable health care; the only question is how,’ the president added.

Chiding special interest associations and the powerful voices who have dominated the health care debate in the past, Obama invoked a spirit of compromise and asserted that there should be ‘no sacred cows’ in the process of reforming the system. ‘No proposal will be perfect. If that’s the measure, nothing will get done.’ He added that, ‘we cannot let the perfect get in the way of the essential.’

Barnes stated that the administration’s goal is to get a health care reform bill from Congress this year.

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