Obama says reform a ‘matter of necessity’

President Obama discusses health care with conservative radio host Michael Smerconish.
President Obama took his health care message to talk radio Thursday, telling listeners of Philadelphia-based host Michael Smerconish that he wants to overhaul the nation’s ailing health care system out of necessity rather than politics.

Appearing with Smerconish for 30 minutes on a broadcast from the White House, Obama faced some of the persistent questions of conservative Americans and others concerned that overhauling the nation’s health care system will unnecessarily expand government authority and drive up the deficit. The questions from Smerconish and the callers were offered with calm and respect, in contrast to some town hall meetings where opponents of Obama and health care legislation have angrily disrupted proceedings. Smerconish asked about a popular conservative accusation that the government is trying to “be in everything” by pushing for a health care overhaul after effectively taking over some banks and automakers and passing the $787 billion economic stimulus package. Obama noted that the bailout packages for financial institutions and the auto industry began under his predecessor, whom he described as “a conservative Republican president.” He said that he agreed with the steps taken by the Bush administration and that further steps by his government also were necessary to halt a crippling economic recession. Watch Obama take calls on health care reform » “This wasn’t ideological. This was a matter of necessity,” Obama said, adding that he would prefer avoiding any government intervention in the health care industry. “The problem is, it’s not working,” Obama said, noting that 14,000 people lose their health insurance coverage each month and that health care costs are rising considerably faster than wages or inflation.

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A questioner identified as Ernie from Boston stated that Congress “has not voted to join the public plan once it passes,” then asked if the federal health insurance program for government workers, including members of Congress, would be opened to the general public. Similar questions have been asked repeatedly at town hall meetings across the country by people who believe the government is trying to force them into a program that politicians won’t join themselves. However, no health care measure has been debated by the full House or Senate yet, so the final shape of a bill remains uncertain. Obama said he favors having a public plan as one option from a menu available to consumers, who would choose what works best for them. He said including the public option in the federal insurance program would be fine with him, noting it would remain one option competing with private health insurance plans. “Nobody would be obligated to choose the public option,” Obama said. “I think it would make perfect sense to make the public option available to federal employees as well. But keep in mind it would just be a choice.” However, the question and Obama’s answer failed to address a deeper issue. Republican opponents of health care reform insist that creating a public option subsidized by the government would eventually drive private insurers out of the market, resulting in the government taking over the health care system. None of Obama’s answers Thursday dealt with that concern, expressed repeatedly by Republican politicians and participants at town hall meetings. Obama has previously said that talk of a government takeover is misinformation spread by opponents of a health care overhaul who are benefiting from the status quo. He also responded to the Boston caller’s question by noting that federal employees have a good choice of options because they are a large pool of customers, which inspires competition among insurance companies for their business. The health care bill that he envisions would allow consumers to also benefit from negotiating as pools of customers to get more choices and better deals, he said. Another caller raised the issue of whether health care legislation would provide free health insurance for illegal immigrants, a false rumor often cited by opponents at town hall meetings. Obama called such claims “pure misinformation,” saying no bills proposed so far would cover illegal immigrants. “That is simply not true and has never been the case,” Obama said. Smerconish then raised a popular rebuttal, noting that federal law requires hospital emergency rooms to care for patients regardless of their immigration status. Obama said that would continue, calling it a “basic standard of decency” to provide care for those facing death or severe illness. As an example, he said he wouldn’t want the child of an illegal immigrant to be denied treatment for a disease that could then be spread in a schoolyard or playground.

Asked what he required in a health care bill, Obama repeated his long-standing demand for a deficit-neutral program that reverses rising health care costs and protects consumers by preventing existing practices such as denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions or new illness. In addition, he said the plan must provide options for health coverage affordable to middle-class families, with the government helping people who can’t afford market-based premiums.