Town meetings start health reform effort

DENVER Sat Dec 6, 2008 9:35am EST

1 of 2. President-elect Barack Obama introduces New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as his nominee for commerce secretary during a news conference in Chicago December 3, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/John Gress

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DENVER (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama's transition team will kick-start the process of healthcare reform with a series of meetings across the country, modeled on those his campaign held last summer.

"Providing quality affordable health care for all Americans is one of my top priorities for this country because our long-term fiscal prospects will have a hard time improving as long as sky-rocketing health care costs are holding us all down," Obama said in a statement on Friday.

"Yet in order for us to reform our health care system, we must first begin reforming how government communicates with the American people," he said.

"These Health Care Community Discussions are a great way for the American people to have a direct say in our health care reform efforts and I encourage Americans to take part if they are able."

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Obama's choice for Health and Human Services secretary, said the meetings would start on December 15 and run through December 31, before the new president is inaugurated on January 20.

Obama's Internet site www.change.gov asks people to submit ideas for changing America's costly and inefficient healthcare system, which leaves tens of millions uninsured.

Speaking at a meeting of healthcare industry experts in Denver, Daschle said he would like to "allow the states to be workshops and laboratories of innovation."

'DETAILS KILL'

Daschle said past efforts to reform the U.S. healthcare system got bogged down in details and said he would fight against long, wordy bills. "Details kill," he told the meeting.

"Once we get started, let's finish and not languish."

Politicians, labor unions, health insurers, doctors and the general public agree the United States needs to reform its healthcare system, the most expensive in the world.

Close to 46 million Americans have no health insurance, and Americans are more likely to die of common diseases than people living in many other developed countries.

"The myth is that we have the best healthcare system in the world. We do have islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity," Daschle said.

Unions and consumer groups welcomed the approach.

"Clearly, any solution must expand coverage, reduce costs, and improve quality -- the very priorities spelled out by Senator Daschle in Denver today," said Dennis Rivera of the Service Employees International Union, which represents healthcare workers.

"This strategy of getting out of Washington and engaging real people will help overcome the vested interests that have stood in the way of reform for way too long," DeAnn Friedholm of Consumers Union added in a statement.

During the campaign, Obama pledged to bring health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans and spend about $50 billion to make U.S. health records electronic.

Many health reform advocates believe Obama will need broad public support to overhaul an industry that has become among the most intractable of U.S. political problems. When she was first lady during her husband Bill Clinton's first term as president, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton failed to push through a healthcare reform plan.

U.S. healthcare costs now account for about 16 percent of U.S. gross domestic product -- or $2.3 trillion -- a proportion projected to grow to 20 percent or $4 trillion by 2015.

(With additional reporting by Donna Smith in Washington; Writing by Maggie Fox; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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