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In Televised Address, Obama Seeks to Calm Nation's Fears About Health-Care Reform

President Barack Obama explains why he feels there is such a rush to overhaul health care in this country. He made the comments during a nighttime press conference. Video by AP
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By Ceci Connolly and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 23, 2009

President Obama confronted increasing doubts about the impact of widespread changes to the health-care system, seeking to assure middle-class Americans on Wednesday that the landmark legislation he envisions would improve their quality of life and is essential to curing the nation's economic ills.

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"This is not just about 47 million Americans who have no health insurance," he said in a prime-time televised news conference, the fourth of his presidency. "Reform is about every American who has ever feared that they may lose their coverage."

Six months after his inauguration, Obama finds his signature domestic issue stalled on Capitol Hill, where House Democratic leaders are working to quell dissension and the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate acknowledged that action probably will be delayed until September.

Addressing what he called "entirely legitimate" skepticism, the president vowed that health-care reform would drive down costs, eventually saving families thousands of dollars. But he struggled to explain how any of the measures under consideration would fulfill that promise.

For the past week, Obama has engaged in a two-pronged campaign to woo recalcitrant lawmakers and sell nervous voters from the bully pulpit. The news conference seemed to be intended less to stake out new ground than to calm a nation still reeling from the economic meltdown. "The American people are understandably queasy about the huge deficits and debt that we're facing right now," he said.

The president has been under pressure to explain how far-reaching legislation would translate into eventual savings for families, businesses and the government. He said the plans would squeeze "waste" out of a system that is dominated by insurance companies making large gains.

"Right now, at the time when everybody's getting hammered, they're making record profits and premiums are going up," he said.

Over the long term, Obama said, he anticipates slowing the rate of health-care spending by digitizing medical records, eliminating duplication and waste, and revolutionizing the way doctors are paid. He rejected the idea that reform would require sacrifice for most, and dismissed suggestions that Medicare spending might decrease, raising costs for seniors.

"No. No," he said. "It's not going to reduce Medicare benefits. What it's going to do is to change how those benefits are delivered so that they're more efficient."

Doctors and hospitals would order fewer repetitive tests under his ideal system, Obama said. And he added that providers would turn to less expensive drugs that work as well as their costly alternatives, though he did not explain how that would be encouraged or enforced.

"Our proposals would change incentives so that doctors and nurses are free to give patients the best care, just not the most expensive care," he said.

Polls show that most Americans think there is a need to improve a system that is among the costliest and least effective in the world, but there is widespread unease about how the changes might affect those who are generally satisfied with their care. Obama attempted to shift the discussion Wednesday from legislative haggling to an appeal aimed at Americans' everyday lives.

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