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Ex-Foes of Health-Care Reform Emerge as Supporters

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

Surrounded by men and women who made their careers killing health-care reform, President Obama yesterday reiterated his pledge to enact comprehensive legislation this year, an ambitious undertaking many say is further complicated by the nation's dismal economy.

"When times were good, we didn't get it done. When we had mild recessions, we didn't get it done," Obama said at a White House summit launching his effort to treat the nation's ailing health system. "There's always a reason not to do it. Now is exactly the time for us to deal with this problem."

In the room was Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), who proudly reminded the crowd of 150 that he was instrumental in killing "Hillarycare" in the 1990s. Yesterday, he announced that he supported the principles that have been outlined by Obama.

Also at the summit was Chip Kahn, who 15 years ago, as an insurance lobbyist, helped mastermind the iconic "Harry and Louise" ads that attacked the health-care overhaul proposed by President Bill and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Kahn, who now represents hospitals, said Obama has "successfully launched the process we need to achieve health reform, which we all want, and brought together congressional Democrats and Republicans with stakeholders to begin to forge a consensus."

Karen Ignagni, who runs the nation's leading insurance association, told Obama, "You have our commitment to play, to contribute and to help pass health-care reform this year."

"That's good news," Obama said, sounding a bit surprised. "That's America's Health Insurance Plans," he said, referring to Ignagni's group.

Similar words of support came from lobbyists for physicians, drugmakers and the corporate sector.

"We know where everyone stood. But they don't stand there anymore," said Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We're going to get some kind of an agreement here, whether it's two-thirds of what everybody wants or three-quarters of what everybody wants or who knows. If you don't get in this game . . . you're on the menu."

Obama used the summit, set in the gold-toned East Room and featuring a cameo appearance by the ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), to make the case that it is possible to expand health coverage in America while bringing soaring medical bills under control.

"If we don't tackle health care, then we're going to break the bank," Obama said.

The United States spends more per capita on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet by numerous measures, Americans are in poorer health. Medical costs can cause personal bankruptcy and threaten the global competitiveness of many companies, Obama said.

"And even for folks who are weathering this economic storm and have health care now, all it takes is one stroke of bad luck -- an accident or illness; a divorce or lost job -- to become one of the nearly 46 million uninsured," he said.

Political realities -- Obama's landslide election and soaring poll numbers -- coupled with economic pressures brought many of the players to the bargaining table.

"The status quo is worse than virtually any of the proposals we see out there," John Arensmeyer, founder of the health-care advocacy group Small Business Majority, said during one of five breakout sessions.

Obama said that every day, he reads 10 letters selected from the flood of mail pouring into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And at least three each day, he said, "relate to somebody who's having a health-care crisis."

A handful of those letter-writers were invited to attend the summit, although only one, an Indiana firefighter, spoke.

In his budget proposal, Obama would create a 10-year, $634 billion reserve fund intended to help pay for health coverage expansion. Yesterday, he emphasized that he is not wedded to the details.

"I just want to figure out what works," he said. "We don't have a monopoly on good ideas."

At the same time, he warned advocates on both sides of the ideological spectrum not to misinterpret his ideas. To the "liberal bleeding hearts" hoping for universal health coverage, he cautioned: "I don't think we can solve this problem without talking about costs." And to "those obsessed with costs," he pledged he would not slash the social safety net.

"We've got to balance heart and head," he said.

Obama gently sparred with Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) over his campaign proposal to offer a government-sponsored insurance option to people who do not have coverage.

Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, argued that the "public option" would make government "an unfair competitor" to private insurers.

"The thinking on the public option has been that it gives consumers more choices and helps keep the private sector honest," Obama replied.

For many, the feelings of goodwill were all too familiar. Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said he recalled agreeing with "absolutely everything" Bill Clinton said in his 1993 address to Congress, while agreeing with almost nothing in his actual plan.

"Bipartisanship is not just a nice thing we say to each other before we touch gloves, go to our corners and come out swinging when the bell rings," Bennett said. Health reform will require "wrenching change," he added. If it is to succeed, political leaders in both parties will have to "join hands and jump off the cliff together."

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