Obama presses forward on health reform; GOP stalls

President Obama continued his campaign for health care reform this week with a stop at a Cleveland area clinic, July 23. The town hall event came one day after a major televised press conference during which the President confronted Republican obstructionism to health reform and pressed Congress for urgent action.

During his July 22 press conference, President Obama linked health reform to the economic recovery. 'Reform is about every American who has ever feared they may lose their coverage if they become too sick, lose their job or change their job,' he said. A crisis in small business and high federal deficits, he added, are directly linked to out-of-control costs of health care.

Firing back at Republican leaders who said obstructing health reform is the best way to 'break' President Obama, he said, 'This isn't about me. I have great health insurance, and so does every member of Congress.'

Millions of Americans are forced to choose between getting medical care and basic needs like their retirement savings, their homes, even things like food. 'This debate is not a game for these Americans,' the President said. 'They're counting on us to get this done.'

By the numbers

The White House continued its campaign for reform July 23 as White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag talked with reporters about details in the President's plan for health reform. Orszag reemphasized that the plan will not add to the deficit and will over the long-term bring the cost of health care under control.

Orszag noted also that states and workers will suffer if no reform is passed. 'For state governments, rising health care costs are crowding out other priorities like higher education,' he said.

Other observers have noted that annual budget crises in many states that force higher taxes or onerous cuts in needed social programs and education are directly linked to burgeoning health care costs. The President's reform package will control these costs over time and help states solve devastating fiscal problems.

For working families, Orszag said, 'rising health care costs eat into take pay, and at the same time, workers face risks in the insurance market if they switch jobs or need new coverage and have preexisting conditions.'

The President's health reform package is designed to help working families keep their insurance if they move or lose their jobs or have preexisting medical conditions that now could cause them to lose it, said Orszag. Reform would also provide workers more choices. If they like the plan they have now, they could keep it. But if they need something better or more affordable, the reform proposal would make those available.

Director Orszag also explained that the 10-year $750 billion to $1 trillion price tag for the reform package is fully paid for in the President's plan. The bulk of the savings will come by eliminating waste in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Under the Bush administration in 2005, Medicare was partially privatized and Medicare Advantage programs were created. According to Orszag, the federal government can save $177 billion over 10 years by eliminating overpayments to these privatized programs that do nothing to improve access to or the quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries. Other system reforms, including a repayment fix and new approaches to the Medicare prescription drug program, will save between $300 and $400 billion more.

In addition to these savings, the President has proposed eliminating some itemized tax deductions for the very richest households, raising an estimated $300 billion over 10 years. These tax code changes would reinstate levels created by the Reagan administration in the 1980s for the highest income brackets.

Republicans: the party of 'no' plan

Even as the White House campaigned for passage of the bill, congressional Democrats slammed Republican obstructionism. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D. Md., who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters July 23, Republicans in Congress are playing politics rather than offering their own serious ideas about health reform.

Van Hollen accused House Republicans of going back on their promise to offer a Republican alternative to the Democratic health reform bill currently working its way to the House floor. 'It appears that they are going to break that pledge,' he said. 'Clearly, they want to hide the ball from the American people, because the they know the American people are not going to like the consequences of whatever proposal they might roll out.'

Van Hollen stated that their refusal to present an alternative is the usual Republican game of prioritizing politics over policy. He referred to a comment made by Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, who, after being asked about his party's policies, said, 'We don't do policy.'

'Apparently, (the Republicans) are afraid of putting their plan in detail before the American people,' Van Hollen said.

Despite the lack of an alternative bill, Van Hollen stated that based on the evidence and past pronouncements by leading Republican figures, he believes the Republican goal is to tax employment-based health benefits.

This idea has been proposed by each of the Republican presidents since Reagan and by leading GOP figures in Congress, and it was the centerpiece of Sen. John McCain's proposals during the 2008 campaign.

The Republican idea of a new tax on employment health benefits is ironic as Republicans have repeatedly attacked Democratic policies as promoting higher taxes.

The consequences of taxing employment health benefits would be devastating for American workers, said Judy Feder, health policy analyst for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The Republican health tax would 'unravel the employment-based health system,' she said, pushing individuals onto the private insurance market with fewer choices and where premiums are higher and coverage less adequate.

The Republican tax on benefits would create an incentive for millions of workers to drop their health benefits and either go without or get little or no coverage, 'causing the employer plans that all of us count on to fall apart,' said Feder.