GREEN BAY, WIS. — Facing a sharpening healthcare debate on Capitol Hill, President Obama urged participants at a town hall meeting here Thursday to keep up the political pressure for a health overhaul or face the consequences of inaction.
Even if people are happy with their healthcare, Obama told a crowd of about 1,600 gathered for his first town hall devoted to healthcare, "if nothing changes, then you essentially are going to be going . . . deeper and deeper into your pocket to keep the healthcare that you've got.
"And at some point your employers may decide, 'We just can't afford it,' " he said.
At the same time, the president said that completing a healthcare overhaul might take a long time.
"If we pass healthcare reform this year, my expectation would be that immediately, families are going to see some relief on some issues," he said. "But we will not have the whole system perfectly set up probably until, say, four or five years from now."
Obama's trip comes at a key moment for his health agenda, with senior Democrats putting the finishing touches on proposed healthcare legislation that is expected to dominate the congressional calendar this summer.
That has focused debate on the most contentious parts of Obama's healthcare agenda, including his calls for a new government insurance option for Americans dissatisfied with private insurers' policies.
Republicans strongly oppose the concept, saying it would drive private insurers out of business, leaving Americans with no option but government health coverage.
But advocates say that a government option is central to offering consumers more choices.
The proposal has mobilized leading interest groups, including the insurance industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which have expressed serious concerns about the prospect of a mammoth new government program.
Several centrist lawmakers are working on compromise proposals.
One by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) would set up cooperatives for insurance similar to those that deliver electricity to many rural parts of the country.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) signaled Thursday that Conrad's proposal could form the basis for a bipartisan compromise on his panel, which is developing healthcare legislation.
In Wisconsin, Obama said he welcomed the debate.
But in one of his most extensive defenses of the so-called public option, he rejected charges from some Republicans that he simply wants to expand government control of healthcare.
"I don't want government to run stuff. Like I said, I've got enough stuff to do. I've got North Korea, and I've got Iran. And I've got Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. "I think it'd be great if the healthcare system was working perfectly and we didn't have to be involved at all. That would be wonderful. That's not how it's worked. We've got a 50-year experiment in that."
The escalating debate over the public option is increasingly threatening a sense of consensus that healthcare must be overhauled -- a consensus that the president and others have nurtured for months.
Many Democrats believe that the success of their healthcare campaign may hinge on their ability to keep the debate focused on the rising costs of healthcare.
On Thursday, Obama was introduced at Southwest High School by a 35-year-old mother of two who is fighting breast cancer and struggling with more than $12,000 in unpaid medical bills.
And throughout the hourlong town hall meeting, the president offered grim warnings about the cost of inaction for families and the government.
"What you'll hear during this debate over the next several weeks is . . . 'The deficit and the debt are skyrocketing, and that's the reason why we can't afford to do health reform,' " Obama said.
"So I just want to repeat: The single biggest problem we have in terms of the debt and the deficit is healthcare. . . . The real problem is Medicaid and Medicare. That's the nightmare scenario."