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Obama Calls for Action on Health Care Amid Cost Concerns

July 17, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Saying "now we've got to get over the finish line," President Barack Obama renewed his call Friday to lawmakers to hammer out health care reform legislation. Betty Ann Bowser recaps the week's developments, including new concerns on the plan's costs.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, an update on the battle over health care reform, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: It was a busy week on that front in Washington. Democrats in the House and Senate moved forward on different bills. The president made a major push today and throughout the week to get legislation on his desk.

But Democrats hit a big stumbling block over new warnings about the cost of a bill.

Our health correspondent, Betty Ann Bowser, has been tracking the story, and she joins me now. The Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Betty Ann, good to see you. The president didn’t even have a public schedule today. Then, suddenly, the spokesman’s briefing is canceled and he comes out and talks to reporters himself. Why?

BETTY ANN BOWSER That’s right. We weren’t expecting to hear from him today. I think you could best say what he was doing was some damage control. He came out and made a statement about health care reform late today. And here’s what he had to say.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now we’ve got to get over the finish line. And part of this process is figuring out how to pay for it.

I’ve said that health insurance reform cannot add to our deficit over the next decade. And I mean it. I realize that the last few miles of any race are the hardest to run, but I have to say, now is not the time to slow down, and now is certainly not the time to lose heart.

Make no mistake: If we step back from this challenge at this moment, we are consigning our children to a future of skyrocketing premiums and crushing deficits.

Democrats worry about spending

RAY SUAREZ: So, Betty Ann, there's the president insisting not only that this be done right away, but that it not add to the deficit, and I mean it. But he suffered a bet of a setback on that score, didn't he?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Absolutely. It all started off yesterday with the head of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, and he told Congress that, contrary to what the president has promised -- and that is that it would reduce costs, his health care reform -- the opposite would be the case and, instead of bending the curve downward, it would bend the curve upward. And this is what he had to say when he testified.

DOUGLAS ELMENDORF, director, Congressional Budget Office: We do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount. And on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health care costs.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Betty Ann, did that statement from Director Elmendorf strengthen the hands of the Blue Dogs, the Democratic moderates?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It did. And last week is when we realized that the president was facing a revolt right within his own party from moderate and conservative Democrats, but it also gave the Republicans ammunition.

They've been saying all along that this was going to cost too much, it wasn't going to make health care cost go down, that it was a job killer, and that it was not going to be good for the economy, and so they seized on that immediately.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, both the president and, earlier today, House Speaker Pelosi and members of the House leadership pushed back a little on the CBO director. They talked about ways that health care costs might be reduced, didn't they?

Savings could finance health care

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yes, they're saying that there can be savings made in Medicare and Medicaid that might make up for about half of what it would cost to finance health care.

And Speaker Pelosi pushed back a little bit on her timetable. The president has said he wants a bill reported out by the August recess. And she pushed back today a little bit by saying, well, I want to wait and see what the Senate's going to do.

RAY SUAREZ: But she did say, "We are in excellent shape," and she gave as examples the committees that health care has been moving through. There has been some progress.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Absolutely. There are three bills that have been reported out of committee now, one in the Senate and two in the House, and basically they're very much in concert with each other.

They would expand coverage to about 90-plus percent of all Americans. There would be a mandate that employers would have to give coverage, and everybody would have to get their coverage, as well, that your insurance would be portable when you go from one job to another, and there's also a provision for a public insurance plan, so-called public option.

This is something Republicans don't want; some of the moderate Democrats don't like it, either. Basically, it's an insurance system run by the government. The idea would be that there would be less overhead and that it could compete with the private insurers, as the president says, to keep the private insurers honest.

RAY SUAREZ: In the case of the Senate committee, Senator Ted Kennedy's committee, and the two House committees that reported out in the last day, have any Republican votes been garnered for this legislation?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: None.

RAY SUAREZ: And what does that do to the fate of what everyone in the Democratic leadership says they'd like to be a bipartisan plan?

Bipartisan support is unlikely

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Exactly. The president's been saying all along he wants a bipartisan bill, but that's looking less and less likely. Senator Max Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, this is the committee that's responsible for figuring out how to pay for all of this.

And he originally wanted to have a provision written into the legislation that would have provided for employer-sponsored benefits, the benefits that our employers give us health care-wise, to be taxed. It would have raised over $300 billion, and the White House nixed it.

So now Baucus is back to the bargaining table trying to get this bipartisan bill. But you could tell yesterday how frustrated he was. When he came out in a break, he said to reporters, "The president is not being helpful," meaning because he doesn't want this provision written into the legislation.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, some of the committee chairmen in the House committees that have passed this out, they said, well, yes, no Republicans voted for it, but we did take a lot of their amendments. Is that a version of bipartisanship?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Well, I think it's mostly rhetoric, because the votes went up and down party lines, even though they did include some of the amendments.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Betty Ann, we're still waiting for one more House committee, I believe, and also for a final explanation from the Senate on how this is going to get paid for, right?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Right. And the timetable is important here, because the president is very popular right now. He wants to use this momentum to get this through.

And I think a lot of people are looking back to the Clinton years when the Clintons first were in the White House, and they didn't have that momentum. They went all the way through to summer and into the fall before they had a bill. And when they brought it to the Congress, they said, "Here it is. Please pass it."

The president's strategy is very different. He said, "You write the bill, but here are the conditions that I want met."

RAY SUAREZ: Betty Ann Bowser, thanks a lot.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: On our web site, newshour.pbs.org, you can explore our feature on "Voices of Health Care Reform." You'll find stories about small-business owners struggling to provide health insurance for their employees.