Obama Kicks Off Health Care Effort

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

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.

The administration feels that there are two key reasons why this will work: first, health care costs have skyrocketed since the 1990s, to the degree that "everyone now knows the current path is unsustainable," a White House official tells ABC News.

The other reason? Call it the un-Hillary approach to health care.

As a candidate last year, Obama said the Clinton approach in 1993 was wrong because it was behind closed doors and kept in the White House.

"I respect that Sen. Clinton and President Clinton tried to get healthcare fixed in 1993," then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, said in Henderson, Nev., in January 2008. "But they went about it the wrong way." He pledged to bring together medical professionals, drug companies and insurers to sit at a table and work out a plan.

The Obama Administration has outlined a set of principles that it wants in the legislation and is prepared to let Congress work its will – as opposed to just handing over a big binder and saying, "Here, pass this," a senior administration official says.

The White House invited to the summit people who opposed the Hillary Clinton health care reform, including Charles "Chip" N. Kahn III, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, and Karen M. Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, a successor group to the Health Insurance Association of America, which launched the "Harry and Louise" TV ads that helped sink the Clinton health care proposal.

President Obama invited Ignagni to speak at the final session of the summit and she pledged that her organization will work with the White House.

"We hear the American people about what's not working," Ignagni said. "We've taken that seriously. You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year."

In a smaller discussion session today, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., argued that the health care situation in this nation is so urgent that this is not a "Harry and Louise" moment but a "Thelma and Louise" moment, referencing the 1991 movie in which the title characters drive their car off of a cliff.

Obama, contrasting his goal with Thelma's and Louise's demise, said, "So, I just want to be clear, that's not our intention here."

Earlier in the day, Obama said that now is the time to make investments in reform, tying it to his efforts to bring down the federal deficit.

"Well, let's be clear: The same soaring costs that are straining our families' budgets are sinking our businesses and eating up our government's budget too," the president said. "Making ... investments that will dramatically lower costs won't add to our budget deficits in the long-term. Rather, it is one of the best ways to reduce them."

Obama said his goal is to enact comprehensive reform by the end of this year, and White House officials say he is serious about the need to make reforms quickly.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, one of the key congressional committees that the president is entrusting to draft the legislation, says his goal is to begin writing the legislation at the beginning of the summer, with a bill hitting the floor of the Senate for a vote before the August recess.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member on the Finance Committee, echoed that timeline to the president. "We expect to have work on this in the committee in June," he said. "Maybe it will sound a little ambitious, but if you aren't ambitious on a major problem like this that the country decides needs to be done, it'll never get done."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today that it is feasible to get a bill because of the urgency of the issue and noted that it may be easier to do because it is not an election year.

"Obviously, in even-numbered years, there's a bit of a silly season here, in terms of getting things done," he said. "I think everyone would recognize that."

Baucus told ABC News that he wants this effort to be truly bipartisan, in contrast to the approach taken to the stimulus bill earlier this year.

He said he will work with his Republican counterpart, ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in drafting the legislation.

"No, no, stimulus has been different," Baucus admitted. "In fact at the end of the stimulus debate and after the vote, Grassley stood up and said 'you know, this might have been a bit partisan, but the next big effort is healthcare reform and I don't want that to be partisan, I want to work together,' and he meant it and I deeply appreciate that."

Baucus, told ABC News this week that he was "concerned" about the president's proposal to help pay for health care reform by reducing the amount in itemized deductions that those earning more than $250,000 a year can claim on their taxes.

"It's an issue," Baucus said, "but there are lots of different ways to solve this one, there's always a solution ... you just have to look hard enough and carefully enough and creatively enough to find a solution and if not that tax provision, there may be some other."

Participants broke into five discussion groups this afternoon, moderated by Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers and newly named White House healthcare czar Nancy-Ann DeParle. Obama joked prior to the sessions that he expected the issue solved by the time the end of the day.

ABC News' Lindsey Ellerson contributed to this report.