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Obama pushes national health care plan

| Friday, June 27, 2008

Barack Obama on Thursday used Pittsburgh as his stage to ask Americans for a mandate to implement a national health care plan if he's elected president.

"If we can't control skyrocketing health care costs, we'll confront a mounting moral crisis and a major anchor on the ability of American business to compete," said Obama, who invited 13 prominent panelists from labor, industry and academia to participate in an economic summit at Carnegie Mellon University.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee focused the discussion on early childhood education, energy technology and transportation infrastructure as areas that need improvements to keep the United States competitive in the global economy.

Many voters consider the economy to be the most critical issue in the presidential race. Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain addressed energy and economic issues yesterday at an event in Cincinnati.

The McCain campaign said Obama's policies would actually stall competitiveness for American companies.

"The greatest force for jobs here at home and for global competitiveness is fewer government regulations, strong trading partners and lower taxes, all of which Barack Obama has opposed," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Obama's summit brought together such industry, labor, commerce and education leaders as General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner, America Online co-founder Steve Case, U.S. Steel CEO John P. Surma, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield and Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern.

"My real claim to fame is that I went to high school with Barack Obama," Case said with a smile, drawing laughter and applause from about 300 Obama supporters in a gym on the Oakland campus.

Allegheny County Republican Chairman Jim Roddey scoffed at Obama's decision to hold a summit in Pittsburgh.

"I don't know, maybe he's punishing us for still being bitter or something, but for Pennsylvania, I think his proposals are an absolute disaster," Roddey said.

Don Bialostosky, 61, of Highland Park praised Obama for "holding his own" during the two-hour brainstorming session with experts on a range of issues.

"Not many people can do that," said Bialostosky, who teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh.

Stern, whose union endorsed Obama, said labor and business leaders are ready to work together to bring about affordable health care for everyone.

"We can't be the only industrialized nation to put the price of health care on our products," he said. "No American should be denied access to health care, and no business owner should compete at a disadvantage because they are trying to do the right thing and help cover their employees."

Obama said the health care system's shortfalls hold back the nation and concern Americans more than any issue except soaring fuel prices.

"We spend more money per person on health care than any nation on Earth by a wide margin, and yet our outcomes are mediocre at best, when compared to other industrialized nations," the Illinois senator said. "We've got 47 million people without health insurance."

"The key is that the American people have to provide a mandate for change in this area," Obama said. "We have to insist ... we're going to hold the president accountable. We're going to hold Congress accountable."

When the Clinton administration tried to get Congress to adopt a national health care plan in 1993, much of the business community and many Americans opposed the idea, but "a political realignment has taken place," he said.

"I'm expecting U.S. Steel and General Motors and other key industries to say we've got to get this done for our sake as well -- that this is No. 1 of our priority list, not something that's on a back burner," Obama said.

Obama's proposal would keep the private insurance system, but expand it by subsidizing premiums for people who can't afford insurance, based on a sliding scale depending on personal income. Government, businesses and consumers would share costs. A proposed National Health Insurance Exchange would monitor participating insurance companies.

McCain's health care plan would give tax credits -- $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families -- to offset the cost of insurance. People who obtain insurance for less would have the option to deposit the rest of the money in health savings accounts.

The Arizona senator's plan would allow employees to keep the same insurance if they switched jobs. McCain would work with governors to develop a "best practice model" for states to follow, to help people with pre-existing conditions gain access to insurance. He suggests establishing a nonprofit to cover patients denied coverage. This system would place "reasonable limits on premiums" and make assistance available for the poorest Americans.

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