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Obama issues challenge: At a town hall meeting, the president pushes hard for health care reform and tells critics to put forward a plan.

June 12, 2009
In The News

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Undertaking a new and aggressive push to enact health reform this year, President Barack Obama bluntly challenged Republican critics on Thursday to put forward their own plan to expand coverage to the uninsured and help struggling families afford care.

"To those who criticize our efforts, I ask them, 'What's the alternative?'" Obama said at a town hall-style meeting, surrounded by supportive citizens in Green Bay.

Photo by: Gerald Herbert

President Barack Obama conducts a town hall meeting on health care reform Thursday at Southwest High School in Green Bay, Wis.

"What else do we say to all those families who spend more on health care than on housing or on food? What do we tell those businesses that are choosing between closing their doors and letting their workers go?"

A dispute over Obama's desire to create a government-sponsored health plan to compete with private insurers is forming a major obstacle to bipartisan consensus on a sweeping overhaul of the nation's health-care system. So the president is stepping up his personal efforts, a key part of which is selling his ideas directly to Americans, in hopes they will pressure lawmakers directly and create momentum througha groundswell of public support.

Obama said much of the cost of reform will be paid for by changing a system that he said "automatically equates expensive care with better care.

U.S. Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, are counting on Obama's support for a bill they introduced Thursday that changes the Medicare reimbursement system from one that punishes states like Wisconsin and Iowa, where physicians currently receive significantly lower reimbursement while performing in a more-effective, less-costly manner.

Following the president's speech, Kind told the Telegraph Herald that the president is "embracing the concept to reward quality over quantity," based on a White House meeting Kind had Tuesday with Obama. Kind said "90 percent of Obama's focus was reimbursement reform" and he emphasized that by coming to Green Bay to sing the praises of a "high-quality, low-cost area."

During his speech, Obama described his critics as naysayers.

"I know there are some who believe that reform is too expensive, but I can assure you that doing nothing will cost us far more in the coming years," Obama said. "Our deficits will be higher. Our premiums will go up. Our wages will be lower, our jobs will be fewer, and our businesses will suffer."

The president's warnings come as reservations have been expressed by health-care providers, Congress -- led by Obama's fellow Democrats -- and the public. The brief ride from the airport to the high school where he spoke featured a rare sight for the new president: a large gathering of protesters.

Signs held among the several hundred demonstrators lining his route said "NObama" and "No to Socialism."

Back in Washington, Republicans assailed any inclusion of a public insurance option in a new system of expanded health care.

"We see that as a slippery slope to having the government run everything," Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wy., said at a news conference.

For his goal of reshaping the nation's health care system to bring down costs and extend coverage to 50 million uninsured Americans -- an overhaul that has vexed Washington for decades -- Obama has set an August deadline.

"This next six to eight weeks is going to be critical," he said, asking the audience to lobby Congress to get it done. If the country puts off health care reform, he said, "it's never going to happen."

Senators of both parties agree on many big issues, including getting all Americans covered and prohibiting insurance industry practices that deny coverage to people with health problems. But there remain major disagreements over how to pay for the $1.5 trillion it will cost over the next decade to cover uninsured Americans, whether to require employers to offer coverage and whether government-sponsored insurance should be one option.

Obama has detailed few specifics that he is for and against, and did not break any new ground at the event.