President Barack Obama signaled a new willingness Wednesday to taxing health benefits, inching further away from his staunch opposition to the idea during the presidential campaign.
“There is going to have to be some compromise,” Obama said at an ABC News town hall on health care televised from the White House.
And for the second consecutive day, he gave a forceful defense of the need to create a government insurance plan to compete with private insurers. He challenged Republicans who say the public option will lead to a government takeover of health care and interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
“They’re wrong,” Obama said flatly, adding that a government plan would be “one option among multiple options.”
The town hall was part of a major public push by the president for health care reform, which is moving toward a debate this month in Congress. He hosted governors at the White House earlier Wednesday, encouraging them to press the need for reform this year.
The primetime platform drew protests from Republicans that ABC was turning its airwaves over the president to promote his views without offering the opposition time to rebut him.
Obama faced questions from people who were clearly skeptical of his approach to health care. He was pressed to explain how he would pay for an overhaul, how the government might interfere with medical decisions, and whether average Americans would have the same access to health care as wealthy individuals.
But the town hall, which consumed 90 minutes of programming across Primetime and Nightline, was an unparalleled opportunity for Obama to tout his program at length and largely unfiltered.
The Nightline portion of the town hall was more pointed, with the president facing questions from Aetna President Ron Williams and John Sheils, a health care policy researcher who issued an April report showing that a public option based on Medicare rates would crowd out the private market.
“It is difficult to compete against a player who’s also the person referring the game,” Williams said of the government.
In an exchange that drew an arched eyebrow from Senate Republicans, Obama was asked by Dr. Orrin Devinsky, a New York neurologist, whether he would go outside a new government insurance program to get the best care for his wife or daughters if they fell ill.
“(If) it's my family member, if it's my wife, if it's my children, if it's my grandmother, I always want them to get the very best care," Obama said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s spokesman blasted an email to reporters around 11:30 p.m. recounting the exchange, and added the subject line: “Rationing for thee, but not for me?”
On taxing health benefits, Obama sought to make a distinction between Sen. John McCain’s campaign plan and the ideas now under consideration in Congress.
As the Republican nominee, McCain wanted to eliminate the tax-free status of health benefits and turn that money back to individuals in the form of tax credits. Obama lambasted McCain, accusing him of pushing the largest middle-class tax increase in American history.
But the Senate Finance Committee is not looking at eliminating the deduction, but rather capping the benefits, Obama said. One proposal involves taxing benefits worth more than a certain amount, such as $13,000 or $17,000 for a family, Obama said.
“I continue to believe that is not the best way to do it,” Obama said, adding that he favors his idea to limit the deduction on charitable contributions. “But I think there are people in good faith who are saying a cap would at least prevent these Cadillac plans that end up having people over utilize system.
“I am pushing my idea,” he added. “Other people are pushing their ideas.”