Obama Kicks Off Health Care Effort

Calling reform a "fiscal imperative," Obama says this time will be different.

ByABC News
March 5, 2009, 1:28 PM

March 5, 2009— -- President Obama formally launched his administration's health care reform effort today, calling the issue one of the greatest threats to the foundation of the nation's economy that can no longer be ignored.

Obama dismissed criticism that his administration is taking on too much at once and that now is not the time to tackle health care reform, because of the nation's struggling economy.

"When times were good, we didn't get it done," he said. "When we had mild recessions, we didn't get it done. When we were in peacetime, we did not get it done. We were at war, we did not get it done," Obama said. "There is always a reason not to do it. And it strikes me that now is exactly the time for us to deal with this problem."

The goal of the day was not to develop a concrete proposal, but rather bring all of the key players on this issue together in one room. Obama addressed an audience of 150 participants, including Democrats, Republicans and advocates for doctors, nurses, patients, labor unions and business groups.

"Nothing is harder in politics than doing something now that costs money in order to gain benefits 20 years from now," he said. "It's the single hardest thing to do in politics, and that's part of the reason why health care reform has consistently broken down."

In attendance at the White House was Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who was in town for the first time since voting on the stimulus bill last month. He was greeted with warm applause from the summit participants.

"To Sir Edward Kennedy. That's the kind of greeting a knight deserves," Obama said to laughter and more applause, referring to Britain's plan to bestow a knighthood on Kennedy.

Kennedy, who has campaigned for decades for health care reform, said this effort will not fail.

"I think most of us who have been in this room before have seen other times when the House and the Senate have made efforts, but they haven't been the kind of serious effort that I think that we're seeing right now," said Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Obama acknowledged that there will be some who doubt whether Washington can actually bring about change after so many failed attempts in the past. To those critics, Obama said that this time, the reform effort is different because it is more inclusive and starts outside of the West Wing.

"This time, the call for reform is coming from the bottom up, from all across the spectrum – from doctors, nurses and patients; unions and businesses; hospitals, health care providers and community groups. It's coming from mayors, governors and legislatures – Democrats and Republicans – who are racing ahead of Washington to pass bold health care initiatives on their own," Obama said.