GOP cool to Obama’s offer to meet on healthcare reform

The GOP has asked to start with a clean slate on healthcare reform, but that’s not how Obama wants to approach it.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters
President Barack Obama shown speaking at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Washington Saturday.

President Obama has invited Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to meet him on Feb. 25 for a televised discussion of healthcare reform alternatives. Will this be the spark needed to get the administration’s top domestic priority moving again?

It’s possible that it will indeed work, says one healthcare expert who worked on the failed Clinton-era attempt at reform.

That’s because for all the partisan bickering, there remain some areas of healthcare reform where the GOP and Democrats could reach common ground, according to Ken Thorpe, who was a top Health and Human Services official during the Clinton presidency.

These areas include some cost containment and payment reforms, he says.

“The opportunity is there for them to reach some kind of agreement,” says Mr. Thorpe, who is now a health policy professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

The proposal to meet with Republicans in front of the cameras may be a bold but risky move by the administration. It comes at a time when Republican Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts has blocked progress in the Senate. At the same time, the GOP has criticized the Democratic congressional leadership for pushing its health agenda in a partisan and secretive manner.

Mr. Obama made the offer in a pre-Super Bowl interview on CBS with Katie Couric, ensuring a wide audience for the move.

“I want to ... go through, systematically, all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward,” Obama said in the interview.

At the same time, he made it clear that he does not want to start over with a clean sheet of paper, as Republicans have asked.

The offer at least buys some time for the administration as it reconsiders its overall health strategy.

From Obama’s point of view, the meeting could also portray him as attempting to continue to engage Republicans on the issue, while keeping healthcare reform in the headlines. It could also remind the public of its popular aspects, such as prohibiting health-insurance firms from denying coverage due to preexisting conditions.

For Republicans, the political benefits might be less clear. Their unified opposition to Democratic healthcare reform efforts has successfully blocked the administration. At this point, the GOP looks set to make large gains in the 2010 congressional elections.

And the initial GOP reaction to Obama’s offer has been chilly.

“If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

Politics aside, if the administration and the Democratic and GOP congressional leaderships truly want to move forward, there are items that would be likely to draw support from all of them, insists Thorpe of Emory.

Thorpe has drawn up a scaled-back plan that would keep the health-insurance exchanges (where people can shop for an insurance plan) and the ban on excluding people with preexisting conditions – two of the more-popular parts of the now-stalled Democratic bill.

But Thorpe would cut the cost of the bill in half, to $500 billion, in part by covering fewer people than Obama’s effort.

“People are looking for common-sense answers to big problems,” says Thorpe of the overall healthcare reform debate.


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