Obama: Health reform key to economic revival

U.S. President Barack Obama urged legislators Wednesday to back his plan to reform the country's $2.5-trillion health-care system, saying debate over the issue "is not a game" for millions of Americans struggling to afford medical coverage.

U.S. President Barack Obama urged legislators Wednesday to get behind his plan to reform the country's bloated $2.5-trillion health-care system, saying debate over the issue "is not a game" for millions of Americans struggling to afford medical coverage.

U.S. President Barack Obama responds to questions on his health-care reform plan during a news conference Wednesday at the White House in Washington. ((Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press))
In a nationally televised address marking his first six months in office, Obama said overhauling the U.S. health-care system is "central" to his prescription for rebuilding the economy and making it stronger.

Obama pressed members of Congress, including those from his own party, to approve his comprehensive reform bill before they head off on their August break, saying "the stars are aligned" to pass the legislation.

Members of both parties are balking at the proposed $1-trillion price tag — and how to pay for it.

But Obama insisted the country's budget deficit will continue to grow unless skyrocketing health-care costs are brought under control. He said the consequence of inaction will be higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs and thousands more people losing coverage every day.

"Let me be clear — if we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit," he said. "If we do not act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day.

"These are the consequences of inaction. These are the stakes of the debate we’re having right now.

He also hit out at opponents in Washington who he said have become consumed with turning every issue into "a running tally of who’s up and who’s down" while Americans spend their life savings or take on crippling debt to have life-saving medical procedures. 

"This debate is not a game for these Americans, and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer," he said. "They are looking to us for leadership and we must not let them down."

'Blue Dog' Democrats balking

But even some moderate-to-conservative members of Obama's party — the so-called Blue Dog Democrats — say they are concerned about the potential side-effects of health-care reform, such as tax hikes, government control and an even larger deficit.

But Obama reiterated his pledge that any bill he signs will not add to the country's soaring deficit. "And I mean it," he said.

He also vowed to reject any measure "primarily funded through taxing middle class families."

But among the Blue Dog ranks, Jim Cooper, a Democratic congressman from Tennessee, said his sprinting president needs to slow down.

"We need to get all the payment from savings from the current system," Cooper said. "We're estimated to waste about $700 billion a year in payments that not only don't improve our health, but actually sometimes harm our health."

'Long way to go' before full economic recovery 

Obama said the financial system has "stabilized,"but needs new regulations to curtail behaviour and practices that led to the meltdown that brought Wall Street to the brink of collapse.

In the meantime, the U.S. economy still has "a long way to go" before full recovery, he said.

"I realize this is little comfort to those Americans who are currently out of work, and I’ll be honest with you, new hiring is always one of the last things to bounce back after a recession," he said.

Obama's approval rating stands at 55 per cent, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, down from 64 per cent in late May and early June.

Some 50 per cent of those polled said they approve of his handling of health care, but 43 per cent disapproved, and that number that has risen sharply since April.

With files from The Associated Press