We asked Rebecca Adelman of the Department of Health and Human Services, which today unveiled HealthReform.gov, to give us an inside look at the forum as it happens.
The President's Opening Remarks
The media is filing in to the East Room as we close in on the start of the Forum on Health Reform. Guests are just beginning to arrive in the Grand Foyer, where they are receiving a copy of the Report on Health Care Community Discussions being presented to the President this afternoon. More on the contents of the report soon!
In the last ten minutes, the Grand Foyer has filled with members of Congress, health care experts and physicians, business owners, insurers, and everyday Americans - all with a stake in the health reform effort. The energy is building as guests make their way into the East Room.
The President just entered the room joined by Policy Director Melody Barnes, and Travis Ulerick, a firefighter and EMT who held a community discussion in his hometown of Dublin, Indiana.
[Ed. Note: Watch the President live-streamed here.]
Travis Ulerick tells the assembled group that the time is now to reform our health system. He thanks President Obama for challenging him to get involved - he held a discussion in his community in January that grappled with the problems in our health system, and submitted suggestions for reforming the system to the President's health care team. Travis was one of over 30,000 Americans who held community discussions on health care over the holidays.
[Ed. Note: Read about discussions in your state at HealthReform.gov]
President Obama greets the packed house, saying "This was the hottest ticket in town." The President's first address at the Forum is unambiguous that we cannot delay health reform: "Our goal will be to enact comprehensive health reform by the end of this year."
Before the group heads to breakout discussion sessions on the subject, the President says he believes this time around the effort to reform the health care system is different: "this time the call for reform is coming from the bottom up."
The President concludes his first address to the forum guests, telling everyone to get to work: "this time there is no debate about whether all Americans should have quality, affordable health care - the only question is how?"
[Ed. Note: Few people explain the problems the country faces on health care better than Travis Ulerick, not because he's a leading political advocate, but because he lives those problems. We took some video of him and his town, it's a must-watch.]
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Now I'm sitting in a breakout session in the Executive Office building. It's quite a group - former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, Marian Wright Edelman, Senators Rockefeller, Bingaman and Wyden, are among the participants. The group is moderated by Larry Summers and HHS's Neera Tanden.
[Ed. Note: We're pushing it to capacity but you can watch breakout sessions at the same live-stream link.]
US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue addresses the panel, saying there is a "vigorous understanding" that improvement is needed and health care costs need to be lower.
It's an intense discussion, but productive.
On to the 3rd floor of the Executive Office building to another panel. Moderating this discussion are Valerie Jarrett and OMB's Zeke Emanuel. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Senators Chris Dodd, Robert Bennett, Debbie Stabenow, and Bernie Sanders are among the 22 panelists. Chip Kahn of the Federation of American Hospitals and Pfizer's Jeff Kindler are also part of the discussion.
[Ed. Note: Watch that breakout at this link]
I keep coming back to the report that Travis Ulerick presented to the President earlier this afternoon. As background, over the holidays, then President-elect Obama called on Americans to hold community discussions on health care. Over 9,000 Americans signed up to host in all 50 states - over 30,000 Americans attended a discussion near them. The groups submitted reports to the President's health care team listing their concerns about the system and their suggestions for reform. The responses from around the country were summarized and analyzed in the report. And today, seven Americans who participated in these discussions are joining us at the White House today. There are a lot of "stakeholders" here at the Forum, but I have a sense that having those people here who engaged just as a way of standing up with their community keeps everybody grounded by realizing that every oridinary person is a "stakeholder" in this discussion.
[Ed. Note: Read the report in full (pdf)]
I just entered another one of the five breakout sessions as Sister Carol Keehan from the Catholic Health Association was passionately addressing her fellow panelists about the need for reform. Budget Director Peter Orszag and Secretary Shinseki are moderating.
[Ed. Note: Watch that breakout here. You can also find the OMB fact sheet on the budget for HHS here (pdf).]
Dan Danner from the National Federation of Independent Businesses urged Orszag's panel to pay special attention to the voices of small business owners in the health reform debate, who are struggling to insure their workers because of skyrocketing costs. Danner told the lawmakers, including Congressmen Patrick Kennedy, Eric Cantor, and Senator Barbara Mikulski that "The status quo is not acceptable."
Ron Pollack from Families USA just closed Orszag's panel. He stressed to the assembled members of Congress that President Obama's budget was the first important step in helping make health coverage affordable. Now we're heading back to the East Room where the President will again address the group and take questions.
The President's Wrap-up Session
3:50: It's another meeting of the health care minds in the White House Grand Foyer - We're all heading into to the East Room now. The President will join the full group shortly to recap what we discussed and achieved this afternoon.
4:05: Everyone is seated - the President will enter any minute. This time the East Room is set up in a town hall style format, with seating on all sides of the podium. Sitting in the first row behind the President's podium are the 7 everyday Americans who hosted health care discussions in their hometowns.
4:09: The President and surprise guest Senator Ted Kennedy were just introduced and walked in to the East Room together. The whole room leaps to their feet and erupts in cheering, the President introduces the Senator as "Sir Edward Kennedy" as the cheers subside. The two receive another sustained standing ovation.
4:20: The President passes the microphone to Senator Kennedy, who said "the time for action is now." He said he looked forward to being a footsoldier in the reform effort and firmly stated: "This time we will not fail." The room erupts in applause again.
5:15: The President closed with some marching orders - he asked the groups to stay involved, he promised a summary report describing the views aired today, and stressed it was time to move aggressively to achieve health care reform. He then addressed the notion that we are taking on too much in attempting reform this year. He said when times were good - when the economy was better and we were not at war, we failed to get it done. President Obama said there is always a reason not to do it - and he could think of no better time than now. Everyone stood and cheered as the President shook hands with participants and the event concluded.