Positive Vibe at Obama Health Summit

But coverage for abortions and contraception wasn't discussed, a women's health leader tells me.

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President Obama gathered about 120 healthcare movers and shakers at the White House yesterday to discuss an issue that, after the economy, is foremost on everyone's mind: how to fix the broken healthcare system. I asked National Women's Law Center Copresident Marcia Greenberger, who attended the Obama healthcare reform summit, to give me the gist of what I couldn't see on C-SPAN or read in the transcripts.

First off, she told me the day was "terrific," with an "incredibly positive tone" and a "broad consensus about the need to do something and that the status quo was simply not acceptable." Of course, my eyebrows shot up when she spoke of all the smiles and head-nodding in the room. Surely there was dissension, I pressed her. What did the Republican folks think about comprehensive coverage of contraception? After all, many Republican members of Congress vehemently oppose a provision in the omnibus bill that would restore access to affordable birth control pills on college campuses.

"Prevention, including contraception, was raised as important and vital for saving money at the end of the day, even if they cost more money at first," says Greenberger. But she says no one specifically discussed whether insurance companies should be required to cover contraception on a par with every other prescribed drug. And no one groused about Obama's plans to overturn the conscience rights regulation that would prohibit employment discrimination against healthcare providers who refused to perform abortions. (The administration's new rule, published today, is widely supported by the American Medical Association and others who were against the conscience rule implemented by President Bush in his final days, but Catholic organizations and many Republican members of Congress want the rule to stay.)

What about abortion? I had a hard time fathoming how that didn't come up in all the chatter. Obama is in favor of including the coverage of abortions as part of a comprehensive healthcare plan, to the dismay of those who oppose any government funding for abortions. "We didn't really talk about that," says Greenberger. "There were very few conversations about what should be covered."

Ah, now I was beginning to understand why there was so much agreement. The devil is in the details, right? "I suppose so," she conceded, "but I think we're all older and wiser in some respects; we're more savvy about what it takes to get this thing done." She was involved in healthcare reform during the Clinton days and attended White House meetings in small rooms with a select group of people. "This time around, it's a far more open and inclusive process," she tells me. "There's been a lot of care to make sure that leaders on both sides of the aisle have a chance to speak."

Indeed, Greenberger was thrilled by a conversation she had with a Republican House member about a study done by her center that showed that women pay higher health insurance premiums than men. "He grabbed my only copy of the report and told me he wanted to read it right away." The healthcare meetings held during the Clinton administration, she says, never gave her the opportunity to hear opposing perspectives. "Just the fact that we were able to all gather together made this a very energizing day. I came away with the hope and determination that all of the work that lies ahead will pay off in the end. It's pretty thrilling."

I'll check back with her again in a few months, once those devilish details start to emerge.