It’s one thing for a President to give a health care speech from the East Room of the White House. It’s another to bring together scores of leaders with diverse and often conflicting views for a candid discussion on how to achieve the twin goals of lowering health care costs and expanding coverage. But that is exactly what President Obama did on March 5 at the White House Forum on Health Reform.
Consensus is rarely easy to find on an issue that touches our lives so intimately and our economy so profoundly. But in nearly two decades of working on health care issues, I have never seen a discussion as open and productive as the one the President led.
One hundred and fifty of us convened in the East Room for the President’s opening remarks where he noted the failures of the past century since President Teddy Roosevelt first called for health reform and exhorted us that "if we come together, and work together, we will finally achieve what generations of Americans have fought for and fulfill the promise of health care in our time."
We then divided into five breakout sessions that included Republicans and Democrats, insurance executives and labor leaders, clinicians, trade association leaders, and policy experts. In my breakout room, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus and his colleague, ranking Republican member Senator Chuck Grassley, flanked one end of the table while House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and his Republican counterpart Ranking Member Joe Barton were on the other. We spent an hour and a half debating how to lower costs and how to expand coverage, and the discussion was as open and frank as I’ve ever heard.
Representative Barton complimented the Administration on the process thus far and for including several key House Republicans. He said that he could support the principles for health reform that the President has laid out. Dr. Nancy Nielsen of the American Medical Association made clear that the AMA wants to be a partner in the health reform process and that there was a "tremendous urgency to get [health reform] right."
After an hour and a half of discussion, we went back to the East Room to report the results of our breakout session to the President. I held my breath when the President called on several members of the audience who had opposed health reform in the past, including Karen Ignagni of America’s Health Insurance Plans ("AHIP"). AHIP’s predecessor ran the "Harry and Louise" advertising campaign in the early 1990s, which is largely credited with rallying support against health care reform. I knew things were different this time around when Karen said, "We want to work with you, we want to work with the members of Congress on a bipartisan basis here…We hear the American people about what’s not working…You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year."
Today we are releasing the Administration’s report on the White House Forum on Health Reform so you can read more about the discussions at this event and learn about how we intend to work together in the future. Throughout this report, you will read participants discuss how skyrocketing health care costs are devastating families and small businesses, undermining our country’s long-term prosperity, and draining our federal and state budgets. We can no longer afford to wait for comprehensive health reform. The first step is for Congress to pass a fiscally responsible budget that includes a health care reserve fund – because passing comprehensive health care reform will help reduce costs that are driving up our deficit. I’m happy to report that the House and Senate Budget Committees took important steps in this direction last week.
The President has vowed that the health reform process will be an open, inclusive, and transparent process where all ideas are encouraged and all parties work together to find a solution to the health care crisis. We hope that you will read today’s report and visit www.HealthReform.gov to learn more about the President’s commitment to control rising health care costs and provide high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans.