WASHINGTON (CN) – As lawmakers lean toward a compromise that may exclude many of his key proposals, President Barack Obama took his argument for health care reform to a town-hall with AARP members Tuesday.
Democrats are grappling to keep their own members’ support for reforms. Some conservative Democrats have voted against passing health-care legislation out of their committees. The faltering support has caused Democrats to consider a watered down measure.
A bipartisan group in the Senate has held secret talks for weeks, and appears to be working out a compromise that might drop a requirement that employers offer coverage to their workers and omit a government plan designed to compete with private insurers, changes that would undermine many of the key concepts Obama has pushed for.
In a likely effort to address skeptics and make a case for his reform plan, Obama has followed an exhaustive schedule of public statements and news conferences over the past couple weeks in supporting health-care reform.
The most recent was held at AARP, a group formerly known as the American Association for Retired Persons and dedicated to people over 50 years old.
But the members already appeared supportive, many lobbing soft questions during the town-hall.
Despite disagreements on how to change the U.S. health-care system, there is far-reaching consensus that the system is broken. One-sixth of Americans are uninsured and the United States spends twice what other industrialized nations pay for health care.
“And you know what, they’re just as healthy,” he said, noting the irony that other industrialized counties generally have older populations that smoke more. He said their costs should really be higher.
“Americans pay about 77 percent more for drugs than any other country,” Obama added. “We could be doing a lot better than we’re doing right now.”
He has estimated that two-thirds of the cost of reform can be paid for by reallocating money that is simply being wasted in federal health-care programs, like Medicaid.
As appropriate when considering his audience, Obama addressed potential concerns over changes to Medicaid, explaining that he would just cut from the $177 billion in subsidies of private insurance companies for Medicare advantage. “Nobody is talking about cutting Medicare benefits,” he said.
In a telelphone interview, Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, was skeptical. She said it would be impossible to cut $600 billion from Medicaid and Medicare because every program has a constituency.
“Congress has zero track record of being able to do that,” Turner said in a telephone interview.
Among the audience at the townhall meeting, one woman asked whether insurance companies would be able to deny coverage of pre-existing conditions, to which Obama replied they would not.
Obama has said that the elimination of pre-existing condition exclusions is personal. Before his mother died of cancer, she fought for weeks with her insurance company over whether the cancer was a pre-existing condition, eventually winning against the company.
Another woman asked whether she would be able to keep her current insurance plan despite reform, to which Obama said she would.
The softest question wasn’t actually a question. “What we don’t hear is what the dollar amount will be if we do nothing,” an audience member asked, referring to the cost of health insurance.
Obama jumped right in, predicting that premiums will double over the next ten years, and that Americans will continue to lose health insurance at the rate of 14,000 people per day, which will likely increase the $900 every year that the average family pays in hidden costs to support the uninsured.
He stressed the progress that has been made in reform, saying the nation is “closer to health-care reform than we ever have been,” and mentioned a promise from pharmaceutical companies to provide “deeply discounted drugs.”
He also proposed an Independent Medical Advisory Committee, which would ensure more generic drugs hit the market, approve medications, and provide information to consumers.
He has made the point that he would also eliminate “cherry picking,” which he described as when insurers only cover the young and healthy. ‘They’ve got to take everybody,” Obama declared.
Many observors believe that unless the legislation that passes out of Congress is bipartisan, it will not have staying power. Henry Aaron from the Brookings Institution said that there is hope for a weak bipartisan bill.
Commenting before today’s townhall, Aaron said, “Look for a fallback that Democrats can tout as a successful first step and Republicans can claim saved the nation from socialism.”