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Obama starts big push for health care overhaul

Liz Sidoti

President Barack Obama summoned allies, skeptics and health care figures of all stripes to the White House Thursday to debate ideas for overhauling the nation's costly system and declared, "The status quo is the one option that is not on the table."

The big Washington session — Obama called it a health care summit — and meetings to follow around the country show the new president's push for expanded health insurance will be more open and inclusive than the Clinton administration's failed attempt of 15 years ago.

"In this effort, every voice must be heard. Every idea must be considered. Every option must be on the table. There will be no sacred cows in this discussion," Obama said as he opened his White House forum on what he calls the greatest threat to the foundation of the U.S. economy. He also issued a warning: "Those who seek to block any reform at any cost will not prevail this time around."

The U.S. system is the world's costliest and leaves an estimated 48 million people uninsured.

Although he wants coverage for all, the president suggested a willingness to compromise even if it means not fully meeting his goal. That, too, was a break from former President Bill Clinton's posture in the 1990s when he promised to veto any health-care measure that didn't give him what he sought.

This time, Obama said, "Each of us must accept that none of us will get everything we want, and no proposal for reform will be perfect." And, he said, "While everyone has a right to take part in this discussion, no one has the right to take it over."

Obama is setting a rigorous timeline to address the "crushing cost of health care this year, in this administration." His advisers say he's determined to pass legislation in his first year in office, and they say while he hopes for a bipartisan measure, he won't be deterred by ideological fights.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate rallied behind him, saying Thursday that they hoped to have a health care reform measure passed by the end of the summer.

Still, the political reality of reshaping the complex medical system is certain to intervene as the broad discussion about the need for reform gives way to the details. Those may well conflict with the priorities of a host of stakeholders, including patients, doctors, labor unions, drug companies, businesses and employers, insurers and lawmakers up for re-election next year.

At the same time, there's also a fundamental fault line between Democrats and Republicans over the role of government in the health care system.

For now, Obama is seeking to use his popularity as a new president and the public's high level of frustration with medical costs to get something done on the thorny issue without making the same mistakes as the last Democratic president.

In hindsight, both supporters and opponents agree that Clinton made a series of missteps and miscalculations that doomed his plan from the outset.

With first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton leading the charge, the measure was written by the White House with little input from lawmakers or interest groups. Stakeholders of all sides complained they were shut out of the process. Clinton's veto threat also limited his room to negotiate.

This time, Obama is making a very public point to consult with people at the start of deliberations.

Hence, more than 120 people from all sectors — and with a wide range of viewpoints — were taking part in the program. They included longtime health reform heavyweights, including the cancer-battling Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and some people who helped kill Clinton's overhaul in the 1990s.

Also unlike Clinton, Obama is planning to send only broad principles to Congress of what he wants to see in the bill, such as increased coverage and controlled costs. The House and Senate will be left to do the heavy lifting. And, Obama is planning to hold a series of health care forums outside of Washington to solicit ideas and drum up support for his plan.


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The Associated Press