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Health care reform now a serious issue

Ask any small business owner - or any family, for that matter - what their top issue is, beyond the economy, and it most likely will be the high cost of health care.

President Barack Obama hopes to renew a national discussion on solutions to rising health care costs, starting with Thursday's White House summit on health care. Granted, the meeting with more than 120 people representing a wide range of the health care industry plus its users, can only be called symbolic at best, but it serves notice that the administration is serious this time about solutions.

A similar effort more than 15 years ago and led by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to gain traction, primarily because of a huge special interest lobby - from insurance companies to pharmaceuticals - which stymied efforts.

President Obama has made health care reform a major priority of his administration, but he must be strong willed enough to not falter when the same special interests again try to drag anchor. He is preparing the way with his 2010 federal budget calling for setting aside $630 billion over 10 years for as yet unspecified health care reform, a sum he calls a down payment.

Health care costs continue to consume larger and large shares of federal and state spending, to the point in Minnesota where shortly health care spending will frame the majority of the state budget. The United States spends more than $2.2 trillion on health care each year - almost $8,000 per person, the president notes. That sum amounts to 16 percent of the total economy.

The answer won't be that simple, as we're sure summit participants found out Thursday. While a goal of the administration may be to extend health care coverage to as many of the nation's 46 million uninsured as possible, that move won't curb rising health care costs alone. And while Medicare Part D needs to negotiate lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies to help seniors, those companies need to continue research and development into new drugs. Another part of the equation needs to be an expanded effort to promote healthy lifestyles in order to prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes and to curb obesity.

The right balance needs to be found between government regulations and free trade. Movement to a universal health care system may not be the answer, but a hybrid system might.

Access to affordable, quality health care for all Americans must remain the priority of policy makers. And that includes ensuring a sustainable health care system, where providers and vendors can also thrive but without double-digit increases in costs.

While the administration remains committed to seeing health care legislation pass this year, we are less optimistic. Still, Thursday's summit should put all on notice that progress is demanded.