July 15, 2009— -- On a day when lawmakers battled over competing health care reform bills, President Barack Obama declined to identify the approach he prefers, but insisted significant reform needs to happen quickly.
In an interview with ABC News' medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson, the president acknowledged that coming to agreement on how to pay for health care reform is the challenge.
"What we can't do is pretend that somehow with all the waste that's in the system -- and everybody acknowledges that -- that we can just keep on doing business as usual and somehow bend the curve on health care costs in a way that not only provides affordable coverage to families but also makes sure that we don't have the federal budget blowing up," Obama said today at the White House.
He insisted reform will have profound impact on everyone, including frustrated patients and future doctors. The president encouraged more doctors to take the primary care route and stressed the need to eliminate bureaucracy.
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The president spoke to Johnson at the White House as the politics of health care reform got a second wind.
Today, the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee approved a $600 billion bill that includes a public health insurance option and mandates for employers and individuals.
The milestone, approved along party lines after three weeks of consideration, came one day after House Democrats unveiled their own $1.04 trillion plan.
In both cases, Republican lawmakers had harsh words for the latest developments.
"Based on everything the president has promised and said he wanted in a health care reform bill, I don't see how he could ever sign this bill," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking Republican on the Senate health panel. "The HELP Democrats' plan makes a mockery of the president's promises."
But Obama, eager to see lawmakers pass the bills before Congress' August recess, said in the Rose Garden today that, "Both proposals will take what's best about our system today and make it the basis of our system tomorrow."
Speaking with Johnson, Obama addressed waste in the current health care system, fears about rising costs and the dire need to encourage more young doctors to chose to practice primary care.
He said he hopes any bill to come out of Washington will include more incentives for up and coming medical professionals to go into primary care.
"The status quo is we don't have enough primary care physicians," Obama said. "We've got no incentive to create more primary care physicians. And those people who don't have access to primary care physicians are going to the emergency room where we're giving them the most expensive care."
Health Care Reform: Obama on Waste, Costs, Incentives for Young Docs
Obama also addressed fears that health care reform could lead to fewer jobs in one sector of the economy that is doing relatively well.
"The problem is right now the growth industry is in doing the bureaucratic paperwork, instead of the actual patient care," Obama said. "And if we can direct our attention to patient care, there's still going to be ample opportunity for people.
"The decisions right now are being made by insurance companies, and I think a whole lot of people out there are having bad experiences because they know that recommendations are coming from people who have a profit motive," Obama said. "Now, if I've got a panel of doctors and experts whose only motivation is making sure we get the best bang for the buck from our health care, I think that's a situation most Americans would feel pretty good about."
The president also addressed the health of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., whose illness has kept him away from Capitol Hill just as the health care reforms he has long shepherded gain steam. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., has taken over Kennedy's role in his absence.
Obama said he understands it's been hard for Kennedy "not to be there in the heat of battle."
"I just spoke to him last week because I was with the pope, and he had asked me to deliver a letter to the pope," Obama said. "Senator Kennedy is following this very closely. He is in communications with Chris Dodd, who has taken over the process in the health committee in the Senate.
"Obviously, right now we just want to make sure that he's taking care of himself and he's healing, but his spirit looms large over this entire process," Obama said.
ABC News' Jon Karl and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.