Lawmakers gear up for healthcare summit meeting

President Obama and members of Congress are scheduled to meet Feb. 25 to work toward a bipartisan agreement on healthcare. But Republicans say prior legislative work should be scrapped, and meanwhile this year's elections are fast approaching.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speak outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 9. McConnell says Congress and the Obama administration need to 'start over' on healthcare reform.

The frozen streets of the US capital this week could be a metaphor for Congress’s gridlocked and, for the moment, derailed healthcare reform. But President Obama’s call for a bipartisan healthcare meeting on Feb. 25 is keeping the issue in play – and in public thought.

At best, it gives Democrats and Republicans a venue to find common ground on the issue that both sides say is most likely to break the deadlock: reducing costs.

It’s also giving House and Senate Democratic leaders a window – and a deadline – to negotiate differences between the Senate and House reform bills, so that the president comes to the Feb. 25 televised bipartisan meeting with a coherent plan to discuss.

“Given everything that has happened, the time has come for more forceful presidential leadership,” says Ralph Neas, CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC) in Washington, a bipartisan coalition that is urging negotiators to focus on new, “fail-safe” systems to lower healthcare costs by improving the quality and safety of care.

Pro-reform groups, such as the NCHC, are calling on House and Senate Democratic leaders to come to agreement, if possible, before the Feb. 25 meeting.

Election-year politics loom

“If there is not agreement at the conclusion of this bipartisan summit, the president and his allies should be prepared to move promptly,” says Mr. Neas. “Once you get into March and April, election-year politics overwhelm everything else, and it will be increasingly difficult to enact a law.”

Pressed hard by labor lobbyists, House Democrats balked at passing the Senate healthcare reform bill, which imposing new taxes on generous “Cadillac” healthcare plans that especially hit union families. Unions want Senate negotiators to pursue other financing options.

Meanwhile, Republicans want assurances that President Obama is willing to scrap existing bills and start over. They are holding out for more elements in the legislation that rein in healthcare costs for American families.

“What we need to do is start over, go step-by-step on a truly bipartisan basis and try to reach an agreement. My members are open to doing that,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, after a meeting with President Obama on Tuesday.

Medical malpractice lawsuits targeted

That means medical malpractice reform that targets “junk lawsuits” against doctors and hospitals and reforming the tax code to give individuals the same tax breaks as corporations in purchasing health care, he adds.

Democratic leaders say this talk of starting over is just another way to slow-walk reform of the insurance industry into the next election cycle, when it will be too late.

“In less than a decade, Americans will spend half of their family income on health premiums. But it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid on the Senate floor on Thursday. “We don’t have to let greedy health insurance executives drag down our future.”

Despite the snow, Democratic leadership staff are working through the recess to try to reach agreement on a common healthcare strategy by Feb. 25.

“The point is to try to continue the work with the Senate and the White House on the legislation that has passed both chambers and also have the meeting on the 25th and look at [Republican] ideas and see what they have to offer,” says Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


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