Washington A strong force, perhaps as powerful in Congress as President Barack Obama, is keeping the drive for health care going even as lawmakers seem hopelessly at odds.
The drug industry, the American Medical Association, hospital groups and the insurance lobby are all saying Congress must make major changes this year. Television ads paid for by drug companies and insurers continued to emphasize the benefits of a health care overhaul — not the groups’ objections to some of the proposals.
“My gut is telling me that something major can pass because all the people who could kill it are still at the table,” said Ken Thorpe, chairman of health policy at Emory University in Atlanta. “Everybody has issues with bits and pieces of it, but all these groups want to get something done this year.” As a senior official at the Health and Human Services department in the 1990s, Thorpe was deeply involved in the Clinton administration’s failed effort.
President Barack Obama on Saturday continued his full-court press to pass health care reform legislation. In his weekly Internet and radio address, Obama cited a new White House study indicating that small businesses pay far more per employee for health insurance than big companies — a disparity he says is “unsustainable — it’s unacceptable.”
“And it’s going to change when I sign health insurance reform into law,” Obama said, adding that he has “a sense of urgency about moving this process forward.”
This time, the health care industry groups see a strategic opportunity. As lawmakers squabble, the groups are focused on how to come out ahead in the end game.
“We’re still optimistic that we can get health care reform accomplished,” said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the main insurance industry trade group. “There is strong support from policymakers and from across the health care sector.”
It’s all got to do with shifts in the economy. Even before the recession hit, employer-sponsored health coverage had been steadily shrinking, and many people couldn’t afford the premiums for individual policies. Meanwhile, government programs have been expanding — and they’ve gotten increasingly friendly to private insurance companies. Insurers now play major roles as middlemen in Medicare, Medicaid and the children’s insurance program.
And if the government requires everybody to get coverage — just what the overhaul legislation calls for — it could guarantee a steady stream of customers subsidized by taxpayers not only for insurers but also for all medical providers.
“What I’m concerned about is the damage that’s being done right now to the health of our families, the success of our businesses, and the long-term fiscal stability of our government,” Obama said in his address.