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Obama's meeting with leaders of health-care industry lies foundation for reform, says Sebelius

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2009 - President Barack Obama's meeting today with leaders of the health-care industry was a "historic moment" that will help pave the way for passing health reform this year, says Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services. 

She held a telephone interview with reporters shortly after Obama and administration officials, including herself, met with health-care leaders who promised to squeeze about $2 trillion out of projected increases in the health-care system over the next decade.

"The president made clear that this was his No. 1 domestic agenda," she said. "He thinks we're at a historic moment and really does not see anything but passing (health reform) legislation and signing it this year."

What's remarkable, Sebelius says, is that industry groups that were "major opponents to moving legislation in the early 90s" and "were part of a coalition to stop health reforms" are now at the table.

"That's good news," she said. She added that the president stressed that today's session wasn't "just a photo op meeting but the beginning of a collaborative partnership that can change and reform" health care in this country.

She said the group promised to present specific proposals to Obama in June. But Sebelius offered no specifics and spoke only in general terms about the kind of reforms Obama wanted beyond lower cost and more accessibility.

She said the industry is "not going to wait for legislation to pass. They feel they can begin down this path today. They estimate (the $2 trillion cut in costs) will save $2,500 a family, real dollars."

Asked what accounts for this change in attitude, Sebelius said, "There was no quid pro quo except that everyone in the room understands that what's in place now is unaffordable and unacceptable."

She said health care is "consuming more and more each year and we can't sustain this. We have to transform the system and lower the cost, help promote quality and provide better health care for most Americans."

Reforms will come now, she says, because "we really have a broad-based coalition that has never been together before, not only people running the current system but lots of people who want to be part of the system are moving in the same direction."

Although she did not mention all the members of the coalition, those who met with Obama this morning included representatives for hospitals, doctors and other providers.

Obama's session was in contrast to health-care initiatives during the administration of President Bill Clinton. His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton who is now secretary of state, took the lead on health reforms at that time and got nowhere in the face of fierce opposition from private industry and conservative groups.

Neither Sebelius nor Obama said much about taking on the drug industry by requiring more use of less expensive generic drugs. Nor did they say whether needy people would cover some of the cost of the care. That was one issue over which Obama sparred with Clinton when both were seeking the Democratic nomination. Obama generally talked about requiring some co-payment, an approach Clinton said might not work.

Obama has yet to say how he will pay for health care for every American. While he has praised industry groups for coming on board, he still could face opposition from politicians, like some in Missouri, who argue that health care, particularly for children, is a family's responsibility, not the government's.

If nothing else, today's development promises that health reforms will be a hot political topic in coming months, beginning June 1 when the industry submits its initial suggestion for reforming the system.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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