WASHINGTON — When Barack Obama steps into the Oval Office in January, health-care reform will join a list of priorities crowded with two wars, a ballooning budget deficit and an economy mired in one of the worst slowdowns since the Great Depression.
But the bleak environment paradoxically might spur the kind of costly, sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health-care system that has eluded policymakers in Washington for decades, many political strategists, industry leaders and economists say.
Liberal advocacy groups see the Treasury Department’s $700-billion financial rescue package bolstering the case for a similar investment to help sick Americans obtain medical care. And businesses see new urgency in addressing the nation’s health-care crisis as they struggle to pay costs for medical benefits while sales plummet and profit margins shrivel.
When Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., last week announced an outline for universal health coverage, he was applauded by dozens of interest groups across the ideological spectrum.
“Health-care reform is very much linked to the broader economic issues that the country is facing,” said Todd Stottlemyer, president of the National Federation of Independent Business. “Our view is that there is the energy now to make this a top priority.”
Fifteen years ago, the federation helped fight the Clinton administration’s proposed health-care overhaul. Today, it is one of the leading champions of reform.
Democrats generally agree on an approach that would allow most Americans to keep their current coverage while creating an exchange so people and businesses without coverage could link up with insurers. Obama proposed such a plan on the campaign trail.
Still unresolved are important details about the cost of a new system, provisions for increasing quality and a mechanism for compelling businesses and people to participate.
Most observers expect conflicts between interest groups and policymakers. Last week, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America fired a warning shot: an ad campaign opposing Obama’s proposal to allow the government to negotiate lower Medicare drug prices.
Republican lawmakers are already expressing concerns about proposals that would drive the federal budget deeper into the red. By some estimates, extending coverage to the nation’s uninsured could cost more than $100 billion a year.
Obama has not indicated whether he would champion major health-care legislation right away or if he would pursue a more incremental approach, as some lawmakers and analysts have counseled.