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Universal health coverage in spotlight at L.A. forum

But the White House-organized event is light on details.

April 07, 2009|Lisa Girion and Noam N. Levey

LOS ANGELES AND WASHINGTON — Even as President Obama toured Europe his administration pressed its healthcare reform campaign Monday in Los Angeles with a forum co-hosted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who lost his bid in California to make many of the changes now on the table in Washington.

Reform is overdue, the governor said. "No one can look at our healthcare system and say that the system is fair or a good return on what we spend, and this consensus can help us pass significant bipartisan reforms into law."

A wide array of forum participants, including hospital and insurance company executives and the mother of a teenager who died from a preventable hospital-acquired infection, gave voice to the grow- ing desire for change. But the presentation was light on details.

Universal coverage -- health insurance for all Americans -- was widely touted, but there was no discussion of how to achieve that goal.

The forum, the fifth in a series the White House organized around the country over the last month, comes as senior Democrats on Capitol Hill move ahead on drafting legislation to be introduced later this spring to overhaul the nation's healthcare system.

The president and his congressional allies have pledged that the bill will expand coverage to some 46 million uninsured people, rein in costs and improve the quality of care.

The White House billed the five forums as a way to get public input. But the invitation-only event in Los Angeles was clearly programmed to showcase the broad goals Obama has said he wants included in the legislation, including an emphasis on prevention, as well as secure and affordable coverage for everyone, regardless of age or preexisting conditions.

Schwarzenegger, who hosted the event with Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, marveled at the White House support for reform. "Isn't it nice to have a president who is passionate about healthcare?" Schwarzenegger said. "I love it."

In making his case for a healthcare overhaul, Schwarzenegger took a swipe at the insurance company practice of canceling members' coverage after they get sick over purported application misstatements about preexisting conditions. "That is unacceptable," the governor said.

Schwarzenegger's $14.9-billion proposal intended to provide medical insurance for nearly all Californians died in the state Senate last year.

Outside the forum, the California Nurses Assn., Physicians for a National Health Program and other groups drew hundreds to a rally in support of the so-called single-payer option, which would put government in charge of organizing and purchasing healthcare and leave the private insurance market in tatters.

Deborah Burger, co-president of the California-based nurses union, a Schwarzenegger foe, said she feared that the single-payer approach would not be considered in Washington because of heavy lobbying by the insurance industry. She said the forum, where no single-payer proponent spoke, was just more "window dressing."

With the forums concluded, the action now shifts to Washington, where members of Congress also are working toward universal coverage through legislation that would modify the current private insurance market rather than replace it.

Congressional leaders are crafting a budget resolution that could allow Democrats to pass major healthcare legislation this year with a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the 60-vote supermajority necessary to head off a Republican filibuster.

House Democrats and some in the White House are pushing for this approach, though some senior Senate Democrats are more wary of employing a tactic that is sure to provoke a Republican revolt. Congress will take up the budget resolution when lawmakers return from spring recess in two weeks.

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lisa.girion@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

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