Obama building grassroots support for health reform

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Shirley Hunter reviewed her finances to make sure she could afford to retire in 1999, she never banked on health care costs more than doubling in less than a decade.

Now the 74-year-old former California kindergarten teacher finds herself under financial pressure. Despite taking lodgers to help pay the bills, she worries about losing her home or having to choose between mortgage, food and health insurance.

“I’m on a fixed income. Nothing else is fixed,” Hunter said. “I can’t afford to travel right now or anything. It’s very disappointing to work like I did and then have this happen.”

Hunter, who told her story to a community healthcare discussion in Costa Mesa, California, is one of millions of Americans looking for President-elect Barack Obama to make good on his campaign promise to tackle the U.S. healthcare crisis.

Obama’s choice to lead the reform effort, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, testifies at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday — beginning a process to change the nation’s healthcare that could be one of the most ambitious and expensive undertakings of the Obama presidency.

The United States spent $7,421 per person on health care in 2007, some 16 percent of Gross Domestic Product, but does worse in many areas of care than other developed countries.

Employers complain that rising healthcare costs put them at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy, driving up the price of everything from a car to a cup of coffee. This has become more acute during the current economic turmoil.

“We can’t afford to put domestic priorities like health care on the back burner,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “This will certainly be a priority for him and for the new administration once he’s sworn in.”

Daschle and his team have helped organize thousands of grass-roots meetings across the country to try to understand the health problems people face and the changes they want.

Some 8,500 people signed up to host the sessions like the one Hunter attended in Costa Mesa. Daschle himself attended two — one in an Indiana firehouse and the other at a Washington, D.C., senior center.

Feedback from people contacted by telephone after the meetings shows the scope of the problem.

“As a nation we’re spending way too much money and we’re not getting much value for it,” said Dr. Allan Wilke, a family practitioner who attended a discussion with other doctors at a medical center in Huntsville, Alabama. “I think we all know the system has got to be fixed.”

COVERING THE UNINSURED

The doctors’ biggest worry was the 46 million uninsured who put off going to the doctor until they visit a hospital emergency room, a costly form of care for conditions that are often preventable.

“I think that was probably the major concern — the number of people that don’t have insurance, that end up getting sick and using the emergency rooms for their primary care,” Wilke said.  Continued…

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