U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, was among those on hand Thursday as President Barack Obama pumped health care allies and skeptics alike for ways to overhaul the nation’s costly and frustrating system.
The president received only applause and agreement when he told them there’s “a clear consensus that the need for health care reform is here and now.”
However, he conceded at a White House summit that opinions vary widely on exactly what to do. He said winning quick approval for historic and stunningly expensive legislation won’t be easy.
Deal, the ranking member of the House health subcommittee, said Thursday’s event was a made-for-media event that offered little more than “window dressing” on the issue.
Deal participated in a breakout group that met in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where he said open information on pricing will be important to any plan passed by Congress.
“Transparency of pricing is important,” Deal told The Times. “You should know the cost of a procedure before you receive it. It’s one of the few things in life that you don’t know what it’s going to cost in the health care arena until you get the bill.”
Deal also emphasized the importance of long-term health care.
Still, the unanimity on the urgency to act underscored how the political environment has become more favorable to revamping the thorny system since former President Bill Clinton’s attempt failed in the 1990s under intense resistance from drugmakers, insurance companies and others.
Deal, who began his service in Congress the year Clinton took office, said the political landscape is much different now as health care prices have soared.
The U.S. system is the world’s costliest; the country spends about $2.4 trillion a year on health care. It leaves an estimated 48 million people uninsured, and many others lack adequate insurance.
In an emotional moment, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts addressed the group, his first Washington appearance in weeks as he battles brain cancer. He received a long ovation and declared, “I’m looking forward to being a foot soldier in this undertaking, and this time we will not fail.”
Although Obama wants coverage for all, the president suggested a willingness to compromise. That, too, was a break from Clinton’s posture in the 1990s when he promised to veto any health care measure that didn’t give him what he sought.
Republicans as well as Democrats agreed. Speaker after speaker at the end of a day of smaller White House sessions said action was needed.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said that panel should be working on a version by June. He said the timetable might seem “a little ambitious, but if you aren’t ambitious on a major problem like this that the country decides needs to be done, it’ll never get done.”
Signaling arguments to come, however, he told Obama that there is concern that giving many people the option of a government insurance plan — something Obama has proposed — would reduce competition.
Republican Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri said the same at one session: “That’s clearly going to be a big area of contention.”
But no one told Obama he or his group would stand in the way of significant action.
Obama is setting a rigorous time line to enact “comprehensive health care reform” by year’s end, though he didn’t precisely define what that would entail. His advisers say while he hopes for a bipartisan measure, he won’t be deterred by ideological fights or interest group opposition.
Unlike Clinton, Obama isn’t offering a specific plan, but rather outlining general principles to guide the Democratic-controlled Congress as it writes the measure: increased coverage, improved services and better control of costs. The House and Senate will be left to do the heavy lifting.
Still, there is a fault line between Democrats and Republicans over the role of government in the health care system — and that could complicate Obama’s push to ensure health care for everyone.
“One of the messages from Republicans was ‘Don’t just invite us to meetings like this and exclude us from the process of writing the bill,’” Deal said, adding that the president agreed that was not his intention.
Signaling likely areas of contention ahead, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told Obama in a letter that his party was ready to work with the administration on health care but he also warned that the GOP would bristle at changes that lead to a government-run system and coverage expansions that don’t come with curbs on costs.
In office just six weeks, Obama already has made one big move on health care. He proposed a budget that has a $634 billion “down payment” for expanded coverage over a 10-year period. The government will spend trillions on health care over the same period.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.