LGBT Leaders Attend White House Health Summit

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com March 06 2009 1:00 AM ET

President Barack Obama
kicked off the White House Forum on Health Reform Thursday by
instilling a sense of urgency among about 150 participants --
congressional members and organizational leaders -- who had
been invited to discuss ideas and concerns as the
administration attempts to overhaul the nation's health care
system.

"Let's be clear: The
same soaring costs that are straining our families' budgets are
sinking our businesses and eating up our government's budget
too," Obama said. "That is why we cannot delay this
discussion any longer. And that is why today's forum
is so important -- because health care reform is no longer just
a moral imperative, it is a fiscal imperative."

Several LGBT leaders
were invited to observe panel discussions at the summit,
including Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights
Campaign; Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and
Lesbian Task Force; and Rebecca Haag, executive director of
AIDS Action. Frank Oldham, executive director of the National
Association of People With AIDS, spoke on a panel at one of the
four breakout sessions Thursday afternoon but could not be
reached for comment for this article.

LGBT people have a
particular stake in health reform since many members of the
community experience greater barriers to accessing
care.

"With the inability
to get married for so many of us, unless we're fortunate enough
to work for a place that has domestic-partnership coverage, we
don't receive coverage or our children don't receive
coverage," Rea Carey said. "So whatever comes out of this
legislatively or administratively, we need to be looking at the
definition of 'family,' particularly if people will continue to
get access to insurance through their employers."

Carey also noted that
gays are much more likely to experience disruptions in work
because so many states lack employment
protections.

"Many LGBT people
disproportionately move from job to job because they might be
fired for being gay, which sets them up for carrying a
preexisting condition in their next employment situation, and
they really don't receive the full access to health care,"
Carey said. "This is particularly true for transgender
members of our community."

Rebecca Haag was
focused on the need to ensure that HIV-positive individuals and
those at risk for infection are considered in any policy
changes.

"There's still 50% of
the people living with HIV in this country who aren't in care
and treatment," she said, "so we want to make sure those
interests are covered through how Medicaid will include HIV as
a disability and how private insurance will not discriminate
against people if they have a preexisting condition." Private
insurers often decline to cover people who have previously been
diagnosed with a fatal or chronic illness.

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One of the recurring
topics throughout the discussions, according to Haag, was the
need for compromise. "[Republican] Senator Hatch, in real
sincerity, said that he and [Democratic] Senator Kennedy had
been so successful in the past because they found the 80%
everybody agreed on and sometimes they had to delay the other
20%," she said, recalling comments Senator Hatch made at one
panel. "That same theme kept coming out -- it's not going to
be perfect."

Haag said that getting
at least some coverage for everyone with HIV/AIDS was the main
priority. "What we want is all pharmaceuticals being open to
every individual with HIV/AIDS," she explained, "but if we
had to do with a list of 10 and everybody had access to those
10 -- when some people don't have access to any lifesaving
drugs now -- would I accept that as a compromise?
Absolutely."

President Obama pledged
during the '08 election to develop a national HIV/AIDS policy,
an issue that disproportionately affects both communities of
color and LGBT individuals. Obama recently named Jeffrey
Crowley, who is gay, to lead the Office of National AIDS
Policy.

The panel discussions
also served as a way for LGBT leaders to get a sense of where
the interests of lawmakers and gay activists are
aligned.

"What was most useful
to me was to see what the members were thinking," Solmonese
said of listening to the concerns of congressional leaders
during the breakout sessions. The domestic-partner tax equity
bill, for instance, is LGBT-specific legislation that could
also improve access to health care by making it more
affordable. The measure would eliminate taxes on
domestic-partner health benefits, which presently cannot be
deducted from payroll on a pretax basis in the same way they
can be for heterosexual spouses.

Solmonese had met with
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid two weeks ago to discuss the
legislation and the bipartisan support for bringing down taxes
on domestic-partner benefits, which would
simultaneously help employees and eliminate the extra payroll
tax for the employer. "[Reid] is here today," Solmonese
said, "so I will be able to go back to him and say, 'Listen,
when we're talking about taking down barriers to health care,
here's a great example of where LGBT people face greater
barriers.'"

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Health care reform has
been a vexing national issue for years, with costs growing ever
higher even as government officials have shied away from
addressing the problem. But President Obama was clear that he
has no intention of backing down, despite the fact that some
analysts have begun to suggest the Administration should be
solely focused on the economy.

"There's been
some talk about the notion that maybe we're taking on too
much; that we're in the midst of an economic crisis and
that the system is overloaded, and so we should put this off
for another day," he told the forum's attendees. "Well,
let's just be clear. When times were good, we didn't
get it done. When we had mild recessions, we didn't get it
done. When we were in peacetime, we did not get it done. When
we were at war, we did not get it done. There is always a
reason not to do it. And it strikes me that now is
exactly the time for us to deal with this problem."

President Obama seemed
committed to compromise and transparency in the process -- two
things that could set this process apart from Clinton's failed
effort at health reform in the mid '90s.

Participants at the
forum included representatives of interest groups ranging from
doctors, nurses, and universal health care advocates to small
businesses and the pharmaceutical industry.

"In this effort,
every voice must be heard. Every idea must be considered,"
Obama said. "There will be no sacred cows in this
discussion."

The president
emphasized that lawmakers cannot "let the perfect be the
enemy of the essential" and, though he noted a
"heartfelt" and "moral imperative" among many to
provide coverage to more Americans, he pressed the point that
costs would have to be contained.

"I hope everybody
understands that -- for those of you who are passionate about
universal coverage and making sure that the moral dimension of
health care is dealt with," he said, "don't think that
we can solve this problem without tackling costs. And
that may make some in the progressive community uncomfortable,
but it's got to be dealt with."