PORTSMOUTH - Illinois Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made it very clear to the 200-plus people who attended what he called, "A Community Meeting on Health Care," held at Seacoast Media Groupís new headquarters at Pease on Tuesday, that the universal health care plan he wants to develop for the country has to have the backing of its citizens.
"I want to be held accountable for establishing a universal health care plan by the end of my first term, but I have to insist on the voters rallying for this change," Obama said following the two-and-a-half-hour meeting with local residents. "When I take office, I have to feel I have a mandate for change."
He placed the blame for not finding a solution to the health care crisis that has left 47 million Americans uninsured and tens of millions under-insured on a lack of political will. The reason for that lack of will is not so much the influence of lobbyist money, he said, but the fear of politicians that they will not get re-elected.
However, without a concerted effort by the public to support a specific answer to the problem of rising health care costs and falling levels of accessibility, any plan will fail, he said.
"Iím not going to be able to do this by myself," Obama said.
Tuesday, Obama took the first step in establishing a consensus on a health care solution that involves the people setting the agenda with the Portsmouth community meeting. The Illinois Senator did more listening than talking and what he said he heard most Tuesday was the frustration of those who spoke with the existing system.
"What was interesting to me was the disproportionate number of people who spoke for universal health care," Obama said. "Iím not sure this is indicative of the rest of the country, but it does show the degree of frustration people are feeling with the way things are now."
Obama opened the meeting with the statement that his job was not to come in with a "predisposed agenda." He said he had come to listen, but had some ideas of his own.
He said his final health care plan would reflect both what he hears on the issue and his own ideas.
Obamaís ideas revolved around a system with set standards, that applied whatever savings are realized to expanding the system and resulted in addressing issues in the health care infrastructure. While he is a progressive Democrat, Obama said, he is open-minded to ideas from all sources.
He said he heard was a good cross-section of views on the problems associated with the current health care system and possible approaches to solving them.
Andrea Ardito, a married mother of three, said her family has been forced to take out a low premium catastrophic care policy for her family with a $10,000 deductible, because having a regular policy with a lower deductible was too expensive. She said that as a result, she gets very little preventative care.
Laurie McCray, a nurse, the wife of a physician, and mother to a son who has Down syndrome, said she has had to put her son on Medicaid because she couldnít get insurance for him, and after searching for months the best policy she could get had premiums for just her husband and herself of over $2,000 a month.
"I donít want anymore competition - itís too confusing, itís trying to compare apples and oranges," McCray said. "I want a system with no deductibles, no co-pays. I want a national standard that insurers have to adhere to or not sell insurance.
"Health care is not a market, it is not a business," she told Obama.
The senator also heard from employers.
Leslie Parker, the financial officer of a 10-employee business in the area, said she got a renewal notice from her insurer with a 22 percent rate increase this year.
"This increase means we would have to pay over $100,000 for coverage of our 10 employees and their families," Parker said.
In response, she found an insurer who would allow the company to pay into Health Savings Plans for her employees, rather than carry traditional insurance policies.
Physician Richard Friedman, who is affiliated with Elliott Hospital in Manchester, said the health care system has been looked at in terms of access for some time, but not in terms of the way money is being spent. He said money is being wasted by not having an electronic medical information system, by the overuse of testing and by the extraordinary cost of prescription drugs.
Some people spoke about skewed federal spending priorities - preferring to fund the war in Iraq rather than save lives at home, some insisted a single-payer system was best and some didnít care how the system was managed as long as it was affordable and accessible to everyone.
Portsmouthís meeting was the first of its kind for the senator, he said. He said he will hold a similar event in Iowa later this week.
All the views and ideas expressed Tuesday in Portsmouth and at the Iowa meeting will be put on the Obama campaignís Web site, www.barackobama.com, with an invitation for further public comment. In a few weeks, Obama said he and his policy group would synthesize all the comments and put a draft health care proposal up on the Web site for further comment.
What comes out of that will be announced as Obama campaignís health care policy, but he said it will really be a template for what he wants to accomplish as president. He said he will remain open to new and better ideas.
"Ultimately, it will be my best take on a comprehensive health care policy," Obama said.
Tuesdayís "Community Meeting on Health Care" with Sen. Barack Obama was the first of what the Portsmouth Herald hopes will be many forums it will host leading up to the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Seacoast Media Group has extended an open invitation to all the major presidential candidates to take part in single-issue focused meetings.