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September 10, 09

NEWS / Obama Urges Congress to Pass Health Care Reform

By Merle David Kellerhals Jr.
Staff Writer

Washington — The U.S. Congress is grappling with proposed legislation to substantially reform America’s $2.5 trillion health care system, despite the daunting challenge posed by solutions that may conflict with one another.

In a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress September 9, President Obama implored representatives and senators to overcome doubts and considerable misinformation that has plagued debate on reform since earlier this year, and support his proposals. Five committees in the Senate and House of Representatives are considering comprehensive reform proposals and four have completed work on bills. The White House did not submit its own proposed legislation, but instead submitted its objectives.

It is likely that differences in legislation from the Senate and House will have to be resolved in a joint conference committee before a final bill can be sent to the president for his signature into law.

“Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing,” Obama said in a 47-minute address from the House of Representatives chambers. “Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their [insurance] coverage when they are sick and need it the most.”

“And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true. That is why we cannot fail. Because there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed.”

All of the proposed bills (more than a dozen) before congressional committees focus on three areas of concern: millions of people without health insurance coverage; spiraling increases in spending for health care; and shortcomings in the quality of medical care in the United States.

Each concern is more complex than it first appears, according to a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) in late July. “Solutions to the three concerns may conflict with one another,” researcher Bob Lyke said in his analysis.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported September 10 that 46.3 million people in the United States had no health insurance at some point during 2008, a sharp increase from 45.7 million in the previous year. In 2006, the total stood at 47 million. Many economists have said recently that with the economic recession, the number of uninsured likely would surge along with rising unemployment. The Census Bureau also reported that the poverty rate in the United States reached 13.2 percent in 2008, an 11-year high.

Supporters and opponents of health care reform share an overriding concern: how much reform might cost, and how it would be financed. The United States, unlike many other advanced economies, does not have a universal health care system funded by the national government or state governments. The country has a mix of private nonprofit and for-profit insurance coverage and public programs.

Representative Charles Boustany, a heart surgeon from southwestern Louisiana, delivered the Republican response following Obama’s address. He is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and he joined all of his Republican colleagues in voting against the health care reform bill voted out of that committee in July.

“It’s clear the American people want health care reform, but they want their elected leaders to get it right,” Boustany said in a televised response. “Most Americans wanted to hear the president tell [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, [Senate] Majority Leader [Harry] Reid and the rest of Congress that it’s time to start over on a common-sense, bipartisan plan focused on lowering the cost of health care while improving quality.

“Replacing your family’s current health care with government-run health care is not the answer,” he added. “In fact, it’ll make health care much more expensive.”

A public option for providing health insurance to those who are uninsured has been a central point of contention in Congress. The president’s proposal includes that option if it is otherwise not possible to provide health care coverage.

“There is agreement in this chamber on about 80 percent of what needs to be done, putting us closer to the goal of reform than we have ever been,” Obama said. “If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who don’t currently have health insurance, the second part of this plan will finally offer you quality, affordable choices.”


According to Lyke’s CRS report, the United States spends nearly 17 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), which is the total value of goods and services, on health care services and products, far more than other advanced economies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that spending on health care in the United States increased from 7.2 percent of GDP in 1970 to 12.3 percent in 1990 and then 16.2 percent in 2007, and to 17 percent this year.

Obama told the Congress that “we spend one and a half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren’t any healthier for it.”

At the same time that spending has risen for health care services, health insurance premiums on average rose by 114 percent from 1999 to 2007, while the rate of growth in medical care prices between 1980 and 2007 rose 4.7 percent, and the cost of living measured by the consumer price index over the same period rose 2.5 percent, according to Lyke’s report.

“Despite spending more on health care than other industrialized countries, the United States scores only average or somewhat worse on many quality-of-care indicators,” Lyke’s report said.

Public opinion polls taken by news organizations after Obama’s address to Congress show that 67 percent of Americans who watched the speech favor his plans for reforming the health care system.

Federal and state governments currently pay for about 45 percent of health care costs in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Private health insurance covers around 35 percent, and other private funds pay for the rest.


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