“The next eight weeks are going to be critical” to winning meaningful health care reform, President Obama told a Wisconsin town hall meeting today.

“You need to be paying attention. You need to be putting pressure on your members of Congress,” he told the crowd gathered at Southwest High School in Green Bay. Even if you’re happy with the health care you have, he cautioned, keep in mind that insurance premiums are rising three times faster than wages.

Rising health care costs take money out of workers’ paychecks, put big companies like General Motors and Chrysler at a competitive disadvantage, and hurt small businesses even more, Obama said.

Noting that the U.S. has the most expensive health care system in the world, he said, “We spend almost 50 percent more per person on health care than the next most expensive nation — 50 percent more. But here’s the thing, Green Bay: we’re not any healthier for it. We don’t necessarily have better outcomes.” Addressing himself to conservatives, he said those who are “worried about spending, worried about deficits” should take note of this.

After listening to Green Bay resident Laura Klitzka, a 35-year-old, married mother of two, tell a harrowing story of her experience with treatment for metastatic breast cancer leaving her with about $12,000 in unpaid medical bills, Obama said, “Sadly, it’s not unique.” Millions of Americans “worry about whether they can afford to get well, whether they can afford to stay well.

“Don’t let people scare you,” the president said. “If you like what you’ve got, we’re not going to make you change.” But “the status quo is unsustainable” and cannot continue, he declared. “I will not allow it as president of the United States.”

His first question came from a self-employed woman who said she pays about $8,000 a year for insurance that has a $2,000 deductible. “I’m taking my savings to pay for food and housing because I don’t want to lose my insurance,” she said. She said she favored single-payer health insurance as the “most economically feasible” and asked whether alternatives would just “basically subsidize” private insurance companies.

In response, Obama discussed at length his approach. Some folks are trying to scare people with talk of “socialized medicine,” he said. That’s where the government runs all health care, hires doctors, runs hospitals. Great Britain has such a system, he noted. “Nobody’s talking about doing that,” he said. Socialized medicine is different from single-payer. There are still private providers, but everything is reimbursed through a single payer. Medicare is an example, he noted.

“There are some appealing things about it,” he said. “But we’re not starting from scratch. The majority of Americans still get their insurance through their employer, using private insurance, he said. “In order to get health reform done politically and with minimal disruptions to families,” in his view, the best course is to “start with what we have” and “fix what’s broken.” He emphasized two key points: one: reform insurance, including getting rid of the notorious pre-existing condition exclusion (big applause here), and two: the self-employed or those who cannot afford private insurance or are dissatisfied with it should have the option of a public plan. “Not because we want a government takeover,” he said, but “we want some competition. If the private insurance companies have to compete with a public option, it will keep them honest and help keep their prices down.”

Unfortunately, he said in Washington some fall into the “usual politics” of trying to link a public option with “government control.”

The president said as legislation is shaped over the coming weeks he is open to new ideas. “I’m very open-minded. I’m not ideologically driven,” he said. “I think we can come up with a sensible common-sense way” so that people don’t go “potentially bankrupt every time they get sick.”

Stressing the need to achieve cost savings, he said our current system has “warped incentives” that “increase profits but don’t increase quality of care.” Our system rewards doctors and hospitals based on how many tests and procedures they do, even if these are not necessary, he said.

Responding to a question about whether people will “get something now” if a reform bill is passed, Obama said, “If we pass health care reform this year, my expectation is immediately families will see relief on some issues” — such as the pre-existing conditions denials. Other more systemic improvements — like changing the way health care is delivered to “incentivize” quality, for example by promoting models like the Mayo Clinic where doctors work as teams — will require perhaps four or five years, he predicted. But, he said, “if we wait, it’s never going to happen.”

suewebb @ pww.org


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.