Healthcare groups mobilize

President Obama last month met representatives of doctors, hospitals, health insurers, drug companies, medical device manufacturers and healthcare workers to persuade them of the need for healthcare reform.

At a press conference at the White House, he announced that these stakeholders had jointly vowed to cut national healthcare spending by $2 trillion over the next 10 years.

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The news was significant because some of those same groups had derailed healthcare legislation during the Clinton administration. But while that media availability attracted front-page headlines, it lacked a vital ingredient — specifics.

Now that the details of healthcare legislation are emerging, certain health sectors are raising major concerns. It is interesting that some longtime foes of the Democratic Party, such as health plans and pharmaceutical companies, are lying low.

Hospital groups are raising objections to Medicare and Medicaid cuts. Physicians are wary of a government-run plan. And the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned lawmakers on Tuesday that it strongly objects to key provisions of the draft bill unveiled last week by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Obama is a very popular president, but he will be the underdog if he is going to take on hospitals, physicians and the Chamber of Commerce.

In some districts, hospitals are the largest employer. They are constantly underestimated as a lobbying force on Capitol Hill. Hospitals rallied against an early version of President Bush’s prescription drug plan because of the Medicare payment provisions in that bill. Republicans subsequently backtracked.

Democrats knew this was never going to be an easy battle, and it was expected to get extremely challenging as detailed legislative text surfaced.

The problem for Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats is that few outside groups are rallying to their defense.

Many liberals wanted a single-payer plan, and are grudgingly going along with a mix of a public-private option, with the caveat that the government role be significant.

Obama is committed to covering the uninsured, but not increasing the federal deficit to do it. That perplexes many on the left, who are wondering why it is OK to bail out Wall Street and GM while paying for two wars but not to expand the deficit by spending on the restructuring of healthcare.

The White House needs political cover, and fast. First, it must decide how to work within the budget framework of $637 billion, with that money offset by unspecified savings.

It is telling that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday told the AP that covering the uninsured could take several years and spill into the next presidential term. Sebelius is lowering expectations, which are sky-high.

The Obama White House and congressional Democrats are faced with an enormous legislative test. To pass it, they must persuade some major healthcare groups to back them up.

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