"It takes a village," then first lady Hillary Clinton noted, to raise a child. Judging by the cast of thousands that attended President Obama's health reform summit today, the same might be said of nurturing national health reform (though now Secretary of State Clinton was conspicuously absent from this event, as she has been in general on healthcare reform since joining team Obama).
The purpose of the event was ostensibly to bring various stakeholders together to discuss ideas about how to reduce healthcare spending and improve health insurance coverage. And indeed, representatives of many interest groups were present, from insurers to private companies to patient advocacy groups, as well as dozens of elected officials. (Even the single-payer advocates got an invite to the summit, albeit a tardy one, I'm told.)
But no one I've talked with actually expected the summit to yield new insights. "[The participants] don't need to talk to each other," says Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change. "They all know where they stand."
Rather, this event was a chance for the president to showcase his commitment to healthcare reform and, not incidentally, demonstrate that his administration isn't going to make the same mistakes that the Clintons did, when a small group of people negotiated a plan behind closed doors. This process, we could clearly see, is open and inclusive.
As for the invitees—nearly 100 of them by my count—they got to show their constituents and the rest of the world their willingness to work with the Obama administration and each other. "Everybody's making nice, and that's fine," says Len Nichols, director of the health policy program at the New America Foundation. "I'm all for making nice."
Of course, at some point people will have to move beyond making nice and get down to negotiating details of a plan, especially if we're going to move forward with health reform this year, as Obama proposes. In his closing remarks, noting that Congress was eager to get moving on healthcare reform, Obama said, "I just want to be sure I don't get in the way of all of you moving forward." Maybe he plans to leave the nuts and bolts to Congress and continue in his role as cheerleader-in-chief. So far, the president hasn't shown much appetite for championing specific reforms, focusing instead on broad principles and goals. I hear there are several more of these summits planned around the country. There are worse things he could do.