Thursday's White House summit on health care reform was much more show than substance. What is showed was that president has delivered on at least one campaign promise: making sure health care policy is not created in windowless rooms at the White House without public scrutiny. In the first major test of the White House new media operation, five break out sessions of 120 so-called stakeholders in the health care debate were web cast live. The sessions aired the basic positions of the interest groups and legislators, and the live webcasts provided the window for the world to see.
There wasn't much to note other than Senator Max Baucus, the Senate Finance Chief who is driving the health care debate on the Hill, indicating who he would be repping in the debate. He said he had talked to insurers and drug companies, who were interested in reform, and that he and Senator Grassley intended to make the overhaul a bipartisan push. Put bipartisan, insurance companies and drug companies into the same sentence as health care reform and something simply won't add up for consumers.
The president invoked "consumer advocates" in his opening remark, but there wasn't a single one in the group of 120. No Consumer Watchdog, Consumers Union, Consumer Federation, or Public Citizen. There were leaders of groups who represented various demographics in the debate, but none who looked at the overview from what consumers would pay and what they would get. The closest was Ron Pollack, but the former law school dean's Families USA is first and foremost dedicated to insuring the uninsured, not so much worrying about the costs in a more broad way. I phoned and wrote my friendly contact at the White House last week asking for an invitation, but didn't get a call back until Thursday, as the summit was beginning. He said an effort was made to get us an invite, but the list was packed.
Not much was said of substance today, and personally these aren't the types of rooms I want to be in, even when they are web cast. The fact remains, as I told our contact at the White House, that the president needs to listen to the populist consumer viewpoint even if consumer advocates weren't welcome at the summit. The perspective is one backed up by public opinion polls showing consumers crave real cost controls on the medical-insurance complex and don't want to be forced to purchase unregulated, private health insurance policies that they cannot afford. By contrast, 6 of 10 Americans do want the choice of a public health care option, like Medicare, as an alternative to the private market.
Republican leaders and insurers weighed in Thursday about how unfair that approach would be, to force private insurers to compete with a public health care system. If HMOs cannot compete, they need to get out of the game. That's the point. And the White House needs to understand it. It does not matter how many white lab coats or Republicans the president surrounds himself with, or how Internet-transparent the policy-making process is, ultimately Obama will have to answer to the American public for how much his health care plan costs the average individual and what it delivers. The effort is not simply about insuring the uninsured, it's about providing real and better health care to all Americans at a reasonable price. That's what the public thinks it's getting and what the president will ultimately be judged by.