Obama's health summit faces long odds against success

WASHINGTON — Don't count on President Barack Obama's upcoming health care summit to thaw the bitter political climate that's stalled legislation for months, analysts said Monday, not least because Republicans remain wary of the plan.

"What could happen is that the president could say, 'I reached out, did my best, but Republicans rejected me,'" said Ross Baker, an expert on Congress at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

However, some experts see value in the nationally televised Feb. 25 half-day meeting that Obama plans to hold with congressional leaders from both parties.

"It could be a way to get back on track and talk about what is really troublesome to the average person who tries to navigate the health care system," said Jack Rovner, a founding principal of the Health Law Consultancy, a Chicago-based group.

The debate, he said, too often has lacked nuance and details — and the subjects that frustrated consumers care most about get lost.

"This is not about evil health insurance companies, hospitals or doctors," Rovner said. "It's about a system that is dysfunctional and opaque to the average consumer."

Still, the political outlook is not encouraging, as Republicans reject the Democrats' approach.

"We always appreciate the opportunity to share ideas with the president, particularly on an issue where Americans have spoken so clearly," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on Sunday. However, he added, "If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill."

Obama said that he'd convene a meeting to find consensus on his biggest domestic priority, but he stopped short of saying he's ready to start over.

In a Sunday interview with CBS' Katie Couric, Obama said he'd "go step by step through a series of these issues and arrive at some agreements."

Three huge problems pose obstacles to agreement: Fractured relations between Republicans and Democrats in Congress; public distaste for the Democrats' bills; and division among lawmakers over how to proceed.

Only one Republican voted for the Democrats' health bill in the House of Representatives, none did in the Senate, and united GOP opposition to the Democrats' approach remains a central theme of the minority party.

A public majority agrees with the GOP. A Jan. 28-31 McClatchy-Ipsos poll found that 51 percent oppose the health care overhauls now being discussed, and only 37 percent favor them.

That seems to be fueling voter anger. A Feb. 1-3 Marist Institute for Public Opinion survey found 56 percent saw their vote in November's mid-term election as sending a message to Washington.

"The public is looking for some understandable advances in health care," said Marist poll director Lee Miringoff. "What the president is doing is a strategic necessity; he can at least get the dialogue going."

However, Brad Coker, managing partner at Mason-Dixon Research, a polling firm, said he's "skeptical" that televising the conference would noticeably shift public opinion. "When you have so many opposed, you don't turn around that kind of number with one little TV show."

To keep the public engaged, Obama needs to ensure that the dialogue is about more than improving the legislative process, analysts said, and discuss broader concerns, such as the need to revamp Medicare, the government's health care program for more than 45 million elderly and disabled people.

Medicare's trustees predict that its hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted in seven years. The summit "can open up the dialogue about long-term entitlement spending, and create opportunities for the public to learn more about these issues," said Kenneth Thorpe, the chairman of the Health Policy & Management department at Emory University in Atlanta.

The summit also could allow Obama and congressional leaders to show that they understand constituent concerns.

"There are fundamental problems with the delivery system, its quality and its cost," Rovner said. "There needs to be a change in message."

Others see little virtue in the event.

"This summit is a publicity stunt, because this all gets done behind closed doors," said Coker of Mason-Dixon Research.


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