By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008
In between the tree trimming and gift-giving, President-elect Barack Obama is inviting Americans to spend part of the holiday season talking about health care -- and report back to him.
As he gears up for major health reform legislation next year, Obama is encouraging average Americans to host informal gatherings to brainstorm about how to improve the U.S. system.
The sessions, which could take place at a party, over a Menorah-lighting or at the annual Christmas cookie bake-off, are to be held Dec. 15 to Dec. 31. Former senator Thomas A. Daschle, Obama's point person on health, will attend at least one and prepare a detailed report, complete with video, to present to the next president.
"In order for us to reform our health care system, we must first begin reforming how government communicates with the American people," Obama said in a statement yesterday. "These Health Care Community Discussions are a great way for the American people to have a direct say in our health reform efforts."
By applying the high-tech tools and grass-roots activism that helped him win the White House, Obama hopes to circumvent many of the traditionally powerful special interests that have quashed previous health-care reform efforts.
During the campaign, he recruited some 13 million supporters to his Web site, using the list to turn out record-setting crowds at rallies, find babysitters for Election Day and solicit ideas for the Democratic Party platform.
With the transition team contemplating how to deliver on his campaign promise to expand health coverage and lower costs, "what we want to do now is to move to a discussion across the country," Daschle said in a speech yesterday in Denver. "We want your exact ideas."
In addition to the house parties, Obama's transition Web site, Change.gov, is collecting thousands of comments on health-care reform.
By seeking broad public input early in the process, the incoming administration hopes to avoid some of the mistakes of President Clinton's failed initiative 15 years ago, said Daschle, who is also Obama's choice for secretary of health and human services.
"Details kill," he said, recounting that opponents picked apart Clinton's thousand-page bill. "Once we get started, we have to stay focused. Let's finish it, let's not put it down."
Noting that Obama made health-care reform a top priority during the campaign, Daschle said the early activity was proof that had not changed: "He did it in the campaign, and I am here to tell you that his commitment to changing the health-care system remains strong and focused."
In another indication of the growing interest in pushing health legislation early in 2009, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) announced yesterday that he will give up his seat on the Judiciary Committee to focus on health care. In May, Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
"As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I expect to lead a very full agenda in the next Congress, including working with President Obama to guarantee affordable health care, at long last, for every American," he said in a statement. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and I intend to make the most of it."