DEARBORN, Michigan "Michigan is the poster child of why reform needs to happen," Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm told President's Barack Obama's first regional healthcare forum on Thursday.
Obama has said such meetings could help Congress craft legislation to overhaul healthcare, one of his top priorities, but promised to leave the details to lawmakers.
Speaking in Dearborn, home of Ford Motor Co, Granholm said the state's auto industry is sagging under the weight of health costs that are built into the price of every car it produces.
"We know this economic crisis rests on a number of different causes, but we also know in order to recover, healthcare has got to be a critical part of the solution," said Granholm, whose state has an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent -- the highest in the United States.
"Cars produced in Canada cost $1,000 less than cars produced in the United States simply because of healthcare costs. We've got to turn that around," said Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Unlike the United States, Canada has a single, government-financed healthcare system.
Karl Dalal, director of healthcare insurance programs at Ford, said the cost of healthcare was making it tough for U.S. automakers to compete.
Dalal called for better use of electronic health records and electronic prescriptions as a way of cutting costs.
And he said while it may be unpopular, reform should focus on spending money only on proven medicines, not the "latest and greatest" drugs.
'THE BIG DRIVER'
Obama himself addressed cost at a gathering of the Business Roundtable, a group of corporate executives from major companies that met in Washington on Thursday.
"We can't simply just add on a whole bunch of people to a broken system because that is also unsustainable," Obama said. "The cost issue is what we think is the big driver in this whole debate."
Many at the health forum, from union members and health workers to unemployed audience members, urged lawmakers to scrap the current patchwork of public and private health insurance in favor of a single-payer system that would cover everyone.
Most Americans get health insurance through an employer, although some buy their own private insurance. The federal Medicare and Medicaid programs cover the poor, the disabled and the elderly.
"What I don't understand is why health insurance has to be linked to one's job," one emergency room doctor told the group, making the case for a single-payer system.
"The system is crazy," said Mike Duggan, chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center.
Bob Sisler, a part-time social worker with Catholic Social Services, heads a group of advocates for Congressman John Conyers' plan for single-payer health insurance.
"Our message is simple: we want a healthcare system in the United States. Right now we have an insurance system," Sisler said.
(Reporting by Michael Strong in Dearborn; Writing by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Xavier Briand)