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Americas

Obama moves to regain control of embattled healthcare overhaul

Video by Gulliver CRAGG

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2009-07-23

US President Barack Obama mounted a defence of his campaign to reform American healthcare Wednesday, using a press conference to appeal directly to an increasingly anxious public as Congress continued to argue over various proposals.

US President Barack Obama mounted a defence of his campaign to reform American healthcare Wednesday, using a press conference to appeal directly to an increasingly anxious public as Congress continued to argue over various proposals.

 

With his presidency nearing the six-month point, the healthcare stalemate is seen as a test of Obama’s ability to move forward on a pressing domestic priority and to fulfill the promises of change that carried him to a decisive victory in last November’s election.

 

In his news conference, Obama laid out what Washingtonpost.com correspondent for France 24 Ed O’Keefe called a “nuanced, almost academic argument” for immediate action to provide health insurance to the 47 million (out of an estimated 300 million) Americans currently without coverage and to stop rising costs to both government and individuals.

 

The current system

  

Healthcare reform has been a thorn in the side of many US presidents, including Bill Clinton who tried, and very publicly failed, to change the system.

 

This latest attempt has been hampered by the price tag of the reform (a projected $1 trillion in the next ten years), Republican resistance to Obama’s proposals, and a complex web of competing interests, including those of private insurers, hospitals, and drug companies.

 

US healthcare currently costs $2.2 trillion a year. An estimated 163 million Americans get insurance through their job, the cost of which is shared with the employer.

 

Another 18 million Americans purchase private plans on the individual market, which can be very expensive.

 

Disabled Americans and those over age 65 are covered under a government-run programme called Medicare, and 61 million low-income Americans are insured through a joint federal-state system called Medicaid.

 

Obama’s strategy

  

President Obama has argued for an overhaul that he says would lower costs, improve quality and preserve the individual’s right to the health insurance plan of his or her choice.

 

His budget has allocated $634 billion over 10 years for healthcare reform, and among many sweeping changes Obama proposed, he has been particularly firm on his commitment to a publicly run insurance plan to compete with private companies who have been blamed for driving up costs.

 

But the president has not introduced a specific "Obama plan," instead asking both bodies of Congress – House and Senate -- to draft legislation that meets the criteria he has put forth. This would let Congressional committees work on bills until each body of Congress arrives at an end product. Obama would then participate in negotiations between House and Senate to reach a final bill.

 

Obama had given Congress a timetable to pass legislation before the August recess, in what now looks to be an unlikely deadline. Still, he appeared determined at the news conference, declaring: "We will pass reform….And we will do it this year."

 

He also said for the first time that he would be willing to help fund the new plan by raising taxes on families earning more than $1 million annually, as well as by taxing employer-provided health benefits, as long as the tax did not fall on the middle class.

 

Trouble in Congress

  

Republicans have been vocal in their warnings that Obama's healthcare vision would translate into a swelling deficit, singling out his idea of a government-run healthcare option as "socialism."

 

Even conservative Democrats have expressed concern that the type of plan Obama favours would not provide savings, but instead raise debt.

 

One sticking point being currently debated in Congress is the income surtax on high earners that Obama mentioned as a way of financing the overhaul.

 

Tying healthcare to the economy

 

With approval polls showing Obama slipping slightly on his handling of key issues, the news conference was an opportunity to reach past embattled lawmakers to an American public in the grips of economic anxiety.

 

Obama was explicit in tying the looming healthcare problem to economic recovery, noting that “health insurance reform is central to that effort.”

 

He promoted plans to revamp the government's Medicaid and Medicare programmes as examples of policies that would lower the historically inflated budget deficit and reduce out-of-pocket costs.

 

The president's comments also attempted to put a human face on a notoriously thorny issue, linking confusing specifics of US healthcare policy to everyday American concerns described in what Obama referred to as, “letters I read when I sit in the Oval Office every day, and the stories I hear at town hall meetings.”


Throughout his remarks, Obama warned that a prolonged stalemate would only lead to soaring insurance fees and more uninsured Americans. He will continue pleading his case for swift action on healthcare reform at an appearance in Ohio today.

Date created : 2009-07-23

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