'More has to be done' on health reform, Obama official says

Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and budget chief Peter Orszag vow that the effort won't break the budget, but more work lies ahead.

William B. Plowman/NBC News/AP
Department of Health and Human Services chief Kathleen Sebelius appears on "Meet the Press" with moderator David Gregory at the NBC studios in Washington, Sunday.

Top Obama administration officials went into damage-control mode Sunday, seeking to reassure Americans that healthcare reform would do what it claims: rein in rising costs.

In a report released Thursday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said that proposed healthcare legislation would not stop the upward arc of healthcare spending.

President Obama began the administration’s rejoinder in his weekly radio address Saturday, insisting he would not sign a healthcare bill that added to the federal deficit. Two of his top healthcare lieutenants – Kathleen Sebelius and Peter Orszag – continued the effort on Sunday talk shows.

The gist: Be patient. Many twists and turns lie ahead.

Trying to predict the shape and success of a potential healthcare-reform bill now is like picking “who will win a marathon at mile 19” of the 26, said Mr. Orszag, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

One plan passed by the House Ways and Means Committee Friday levies taxes on the rich to pay for broader healthcare. The Senate Finance Committee has gone back to the drawing board after the CBO said its plan would cost $1.6 trillion. The Senate health committee has passed its own bill, without a firm plan for how to pay for it.

Rebuffing calls for Mr. Obama to take the process by the scruff of the neck – making his detailed preferences clear – Orszag said: “This is the legislative process. This is what normally happens.”

Thursday’s CBO report, however, might force some recalculations, said Ms. Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“We know now that more has to be done,” she said.

But prefacing many of her comments with “the good news is,” she suggested that even a flawed plan was a positive step forward. “The status quo cannot work. It is bankrupting the country,” she said.

Critics disagree. Also on “Meet the Press,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the Democrats’ plans intend to “scrap the entire healthcare system” rather than merely fixing it. By creating a government-run healthcare option, the government will undercut private healthcare, and “there will be no competition,” he said.

Obama has warned against this in the past, suggesting that lawmakers will have to be careful not to give a potential government-run option a blank check – allowing it an unfair competitive advantage against private competitors. But, like much of the rest of the healthcare plan, this remains yet to be worked out.

Obama wants a bill on his desk before Congress goes on its August recess in two weeks – an ambitious request. Even without such deadlines, the path ahead will be hard, Orszag said: “None of this is easy. There’s a reason this has not happened in the past 50 years."

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