Obama takes hard line on consumer protection

President Barack Obama is warning critics of his vast financial overhaul plan that he has no patience for debate from hard-line defenders of a system that has exploited bewildered consumers. Pushing for a law this year, Obama said: "While I’m not spoiling for a fight, I’m ready for one."

Obama used his weekly radio and Internet address on Saturday to defend a proposal, unveiled last week, that would impose and enforce new rules for the nation’s embattled financial system. The goal is to prevent a repeat of the breakdown that has sent the U.S. economy reeling, but such a complex rewriting of the rules faces a fight in Congress and opposition from some leaders in the banking and insurance world who have found fault with some details.

Appealing to everyday Americans, Obama focused on one part of his plan: a new consumer watchdog office that would protect people’s interests.

"This is essential," Obama said. "For this crisis may have started on Wall Street. But its impacts have been felt by ordinary Americans who rely on credit cards, home loans and other financial instruments."

The new Consumer Financial Protection Agency would specifically take over oversight of mortgages, requiring that lenders give customers the option of "plain vanilla" plans with straightforward and affordable terms, among other changes.

"It will have the power to set tough new rules so that companies compete by offering innovative products that consumers actually want and actually understand," Obama said. "Those ridiculous contracts — pages of fine print that no one can figure out — will be a thing of the past. You’ll be able to compare products, with descriptions in plain language, to see what is best for you."

More broadly, Obama’s changes would begin to reverse the easing on federal regulations pressed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Democratic leaders in Congress are promising legislation will get passed this year, but that depends in part on how key questions are addressed on Capitol Hill, including the role of the Federal Reserve.

"I welcome a debate about how we can make sure our regulations work for businesses and consumers," Obama said. "But what I will not accept — what I will vigorously oppose — are those who do not argue in good faith."

By that, Obama said, he meant those who defend the status quo at any cost. He didn’t name any people or organizations but said special interests are already mobilizing to fight change. He called that typical Washington.

"These are the interests that have benefited from a system which allowed ordinary Americans to be exploited," Obama said. The president said he would stand up for his plans, saying: "While I’m not spoiling for a fight, I’m ready for one. The most important thing we can do to put this era of irresponsibility in the past is to take responsibility now."

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On the Net: http://www.whitehouse.gov

The natives are getting restless

When former President George W. Bush figures its safe to pile on President Obama, you know the people are restless.

Yes, everywhere you go in the United States today, you run up against worry and angst. Jobs are not coming back. For a while it was chic to spend less; now it’s just boring. The stock market gyrations are dizzying and depressing. They’re rioting in Iran, while Obama ponders what tone to take. On Capitol Hill, they’re sucking their thumbs.

Gays and lesbians are angry with Obama for not giving them more rights; social conservatives are angry with him for saying he understands gay pain. Wall Street is still a mess, and we keep finding out more dirt behind the scenes. The new financial regulations are either too tough or too lenient, depending on whether they affect you or not.

Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, is a cipher people say they don’t know enough about. They like Michelle Obama, but excitement over the new puppy has worn off.

General Motors is still bankrupt, and there is no consensus on health care reform; it may even be in the throes of an early death. The deficit is now measured in trillions, a concept no ordinary mortal can understand.

Obama has been in office for five months now. Why are we still having these problems?

It’s a good thing we Americans don’t live in other countries, where problems fester for decades, if not centuries. No, we want action, and we want it now. We want our old, boom-boom economy back, and we’ve all got a sinking feeling that won’t happen for years, if ever.

Bush, who has been silent on Obama, letting Dick Cheney do the heavy lifting of criticism, finally went to Erie, Pa., to blast his successor. Bush accused Obama of inserting government into business (although his own financial team started the bailouts), of coddling prisoners at Guantanamo before it is closed (they might be surprised to hear that), and pushing nationalization of health care (which the White House denies). So much for being above the fray.

It’s not that people have fallen out of love with Obama or given up hope that he will be a good president (he’s still got a 63 percent job approval rating). It’s more that expectations were too high, media hype too uncontrolled and impatience too unbound.

People are naturally upset because they realize this recession is not going away anytime soon. They got their hopes up and saw them dashed. They’re terrified by the hundreds of billions of dollars being handed out to shore up the economy, which seems to be counterintuitive to many.

Obama makes a highly visible, increasingly inviting target for criticism. Three out of four Republicans think he’s leading the country in the wrong direction. Desperate to try to rebuild their party, Republicans are finding it is easier to swipe at the president without being shouted down.

Democrats, frantic over the size of the deficit and unsure of the future, are again doing what they do best: squabbling among themselves.

Meanwhile, cable TV breathlessly thrives on it all.

Of course, there is a flip side to all this. The economy did not collapse. Financial regulators are being more careful. Foreigners are intrigued by Obama and listening to him. Millions of Iranians want democracy. Savings rates have gone up, and people are being more careful with their money. They are working harder to keep their jobs, realizing how precious they are.

There are serious, important national debates underway on immigration, abortion, affirmative action, civil liberties and torture. Were realizing that if we want health care for everyone, well have to pay for it.

We see, once again, that change is not easy. It’s a lot better to read about history than to live through the making of it.

As Obama comes up in a few weeks on his six-month marker, we have to look around and realize there is still reason for optimism and hope. Hey, let’s give the fellow a chance, at least a few more months.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)

Can we afford Obama’s health care plan?

One can’t help but think there is considerable danger in Barack Obama’s unswerving determination to alter the nation’s health care landscape at what may be a cost most Americans can’t even fathom.

The president’s zeal is impressive. It is the passion of a true believer who sees a country in which no one is without medical insurance as key to restoring the economy even as the national debt approaches unimaginable dimensions and some of his most ardent supporters are beginning to wonder how to pay for such an ambitious goal.

Should employer-provided health benefits be taxed as regular income to those receiving them? Should Medicare and Medicaid payments to hospitals and doctors be curtailed? Should there be an overall income tax increase, not just one aimed at those who are in the top one percent bracket? Should there be a national value added tax on goods with revenues earmarked for health care? Or is it possible that all of the above will be needed to support what easily could amount to a multi-trillion dollar expenditure over the next decade and apparently still not reach everyone now uninsured?

As the Congress wrestles with competing plans and ideas, one thing seems certain — the impact of a final solution without the utmost care easily could be catastrophic, leaving us struggling for generations to find the wherewithal to meet the rest of the country’s needs from the schoolhouse to the battlefield. As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned recently, the resulting impact of spending on the debt could dramatically interrupt economic recovery. And the Congressional Budget Office has reported that the White House proposals are likely to dig us further into debt without some very painful spending controls.

Obama has been running around the country plugging his initiative and using his personal charisma to assure Americans that while it won’t be easy to manage, in the long run overhauling the hugely complex system that supplies this most basic of needs — viable health care — is absolutely necessary. His is a "Dr. Feel Good" lecture, which includes large doses of "everything will be just fine" medicine. No one is arguing about the nobility of his proposals just their viability in the face of high cost bailouts, two overseas battlefronts and the possibility there quickly could be a third if North Korea’s nuclear saber rattling becomes more than that.

But the White House believes — despite all the growing signs of doubt — there may never be a better time to accomplish what several past administrations could not, that this president’s approval ratings and overwhelming majorities in the Congress will make it so. They may be right but from a political standpoint, the fact that this and other domestic spending plans are expected to cause us to borrow $9 trillion over the next 10 years has begun to raise alarms among Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — Capitol Hill and the White House.

The president’s continued hold on long term approval ratings will undoubtedly depend on how he deals with the spending questions and whether his party in Congress can add to a succession of election victories in next year’s midterm balloting. A recent vote in the House on funding for Iraq and Afghanistan was much closer than expected with 32 Democrats voting against it even after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi strongly pleaded the president’s cause.

There is, of course, another problem when it comes to raising money for the health care plans. Republicans are likely not to support major tax increases, although some, including Sen. John McCain, have been among those suggesting taxing insurance benefits. Democrats don’t want to go it alone when it comes to paying the bills for all this new spending. Then there are the older folks who might see some decline in their Medicare benefits if doctors and hospitals get their payments cut. Their lobby is still politically potent.

The president wants to have this all wrapped up and on his desk and signed by mid-fall. Well, he may have the votes to do it, but the ultimate cost to his political fortunes could give him a headache. But why should he be any different than the rest of us?

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)

Is Obama mishandling the Iran situation?

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets of Tehran in recent days to protest the seemingly dubious results of an election that returned hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power for a second term.

The American response to the protests has generated fresh controversy here. Some conservatives have criticized President Obama for not offering a forceful statement in support of the protesters.

But Obama has declined to make that statement, instead offering careful generalities condemning violence. "It’s not productive, given the history of the U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling — the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections," he said.

Should Obama offer more overt support to Iranians fighting for freedom? Or is restraint called for? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, jump into the fray.

JOE MATHIS

America is a great country with great ideals, but it has not always allied itself with freedom and democracy. In 1953, U.S. and British agents helped overthrow Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddeq. That coup empowered a pro-American — and harshly tyrannical — shah who ruled the country with deadly force for nearly three more decades, before the 1979 Islamic revolution chased him from power.

This history is sometimes forgotten in America. It is vividly remembered in Iran — where even moderates continue to view the U.S. with some suspicion.

Which is why President Obama is wise to err on the side of caution when making public statements about Iran. Perhaps a "Reaganesque" statement in support of freedom would inspire that country’s protesters and reformers to throw off the shackles of theocracy. Perhaps.

But it is certain that Ahmadinejad and the conservative mullahs who back him would use Obama’s statement to portray those reformers as stooges of America and the C.I.A. — a charge that could well undermine popular support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who stands at the head of the reform protests.

This is not to say the U.S. should be completely passive. Iran’s government is trying to restrict the reporting of western journalists; the Obama Administration should do everything it can to preserve news coverage of the demonstrations there. And the administration has already aided the reformers by persuading the operators of Twitter — a key avenue of news about the protests — to defer maintenance that would have temporarily shut down the "microblogging" site at a critical juncture. Such efforts should continue.

But the proclamation demanded by Obama’s critics could very well strengthen America’s enemies in Iran. The cause of freedom is sometimes best served by restraint, not bluster.

BEN BOYCHUK

How is it not possible to sympathize with a people who stand up for their rights and liberties in the face of despotism? But however much Americans would like to see an Iran that is free, independent and friendly, there is little the United States can do to make it so short of armed intervention. And that isn’t going to happen. Nor should it.

It’s not enough for the U.S. government to say it supports a free Iran. Words alone are insufficient. Just ask the dissidents in Egypt, Libya and Burma who believed U.S. rhetoric about supporting democracy. Most of them are rotting in prison now.

So let’s not kid ourselves. Iran is no democracy and Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s main rival in the late election, is no democrat. All that matters — or should matter — to the United States is the fate of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We say a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable." But we have long acted otherwise.

The United States should not be in the business risking American lives for some far-fetched ideal of Iranian democracy. Barack Obama doesn’t have the nerve to pursue such a policy in any event. If Iranians want democracy, they’ll have to fight for it themselves. Americans should wish them well — and that’s all.

Our national security may require a heavier hand when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, no matter who assumes that troubled country’s presidency. Obama may not have the nerve to make that decision, either — but Americans may live to regret his fecklessness.

(Ben Boychuk blogs at blog.infinitemonkeysblog.com. Joel Mathis blogs at politics.pwblogs.com.)

Obama flip flops on transparency

During the campaign, candidate Barack Obama made unambiguous commitments to openness and transparency. But once in office, President Obama has been far more tentative about public disclosure, at times opting to continue Bush administration policies of withholding information.

Obama started off well enough, revoking a Bush executive order restricting public access to records in the presidential libraries and reversing another Bush administration order by ordering federal agencies in dealing with requests for information to err on the side of disclosure. He also ordered a review intended to cut down on the government’s proclivity for over-classifying information as secret.

Since then, however, he has passed up opportunities to make public information that the Bush administration kept secret. The most charitable explanation is that the White House wants to be careful how it proceeds, not wanting to precipitously put in place a disclosure policy it would then find embarrassing to have to withdraw.

Now, the White House is caught up in another such quandary. It has declined to release the White House visitor logs, the records listing everybody who has been cleared into the White House by the Secret Service.

A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is seeking a list of coal-company executives who visited the White House, and msnbc.com is seeking a list of all visitors since the inauguration, Jan. 20.

Although Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said the policy of withholding the logs is under review, the Obama White House in the meantime is taking the same position as the Bush White House: The president is entitled to keep secret the identity of his visitors in order to receive candid, confidential advice.

However, typically in Washington, this policy was imposed for a more pedestrian reason — to avoid political embarrassment. When the influence-peddling scandal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff broke, news organizations and watchdog groups sought to find how often the now-imprisoned Abramoff visited the Bush White House and whom he saw. Normally, this should have been a public record.

The White House then engaged in a bureaucratic shell game with the records. Instead of being agency records, the Secret Service’s, and thus subject to Freedom of Information requests, they were declared presidential records and thus protected from disclosure by executive privilege.

The Obama White House may want to think carefully how it handles this. The Bush administration lost the preliminary rounds of a court challenge and the case is now before a federal appeals court.

Trouble in paradise? Obama down in latest polls

President Barack Obama faces growing concerns among voters over government spending, the auto industry bailout and other economic policies, according to two opinion polls released on Wednesday.

Obama, who took office in January, remains popular with Americans, although his overall job approval rating slipped to 56 percent, down 5 points from April, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

But 58 percent of respondents said Obama and Congress should focus on keeping the budget deficit down, even if takes longer for the economy to recover. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the federal deficit could top $1.8 trillion this fiscal year — by far a record.

Nearly 70 percent said they had concerns about federal intervention in the economy, including Obama’s decision to take an ownership stake in General Motors and the prospect of more government involvement in healthcare. Obama has made healthcare reform a top priority of his administration.

Just 37 percent of respondents said Obama was taking on too many issues and 60 percent said he had to focus on so many things because the United States was facing so many problems.

While Republican criticism of the Democratic president’s policies may be scoring points with voters, the strategy does not appear to be benefiting the party.

A CBS News/New York Times poll also released on Wednesday found the Republican Party viewed favorably by only 28 percent of Americans, the lowest rating ever in the poll. In contrast, 57 percent had a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

The CBS/New York Times poll also found a distinct difference in Obama’s overall standing and how Americans viewed his major initiatives.

Obama’s job approval rating held steady at 63 percent from the previous poll last month, but fewer than half of respondents approved of how he was handling healthcare reform and efforts to save GM and Chrysler, according to the survey.

The poll also found that Americans were alarmed by the amount of money doled out to boost the economy and a majority thought the government should focus instead on reducing the federal deficit.

Both polls also found a majority of Americans opposing Obama’s decision to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey of 1,008 adults, conducted Friday to Monday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The CBS/New York Times telephone poll of 895 adults was conducted Friday through Tuesday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 points.

Mr. President, spare that fly

The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants the flyswatter in chief to try taking a more humane attitude the next time he’s bedeviled by a fly in the White House.

PETA is sending President Barack Obama a Katcha Bug Humane Bug Catcher, a device that allows users to trap a house fly and then release it outside.

"We support compassion even for the most curious, smallest and least sympathetic animals," PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said Wednesday. "We believe that people, where they can be compassionate, should be, for all animals."

During an interview for CNBC at the White House on Tuesday, a fly intruded on Obama’s conversation with correspondent John Harwood.

"Get out of here," the president told the pesky insect. When it didn’t, he waited for the fly to settle, put his hand up and then smacked it dead.

"Now, where were we?" Obama asked Harwood. Then he added: "That was pretty impressive, wasn’t it? I got the sucker."

Friedrich said that PETA was pleased with Obama’s voting record in the Senate on behalf of animal rights and noted that he has been outspoken against animal abuses.

Still, "swatting a fly on TV indicates he’s not perfect," Friedrich said, "and we’re happy to say that we wish he hadn’t."

Deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said the White House has no comment on the matter.

Fired watchdog says White House lied

The national service agency’s inspector general, fired by President Barack Obama, disputed on Wednesday claims from the White House that he was "confused" and "disoriented" at an agency meeting.

In a letter sent to lawmakers Tuesday night, Obama’s special counsel Norman Eisen described Gerald Walpin as "confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions" during a May 20 meeting of the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Eisen said the behavior led board members to question Walpin’s capacity to serve as the internal watchdog of the government-run corporation, which oversees programs like AmeriCorps.

"To say that I’m disoriented is wild," Walpin said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The whole thing is idiotic."

Obama told Congress last week that he had lost confidence in Walpin and was removing him from his post at the national service corporation. Obama did not explain then what led him to lose confidence in Walpin, prompting lawmakers to request more details about the firing.

On Tuesday night, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., became the first Democrat to question the administration’s firing of Walpin, contending the White House failed to follow a law requiring an explanation of the reason for the dismissal.

Several Republicans had previously complained.

Eisen said in his letter to McCaskill, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that Walpin was removed after a review was requested by the corporation’s bipartisan board. Among other reasons, Eisen cited Walpin’s absence from the corporation’s headquarters in Washington.

"Mr. Walpin had become unduly disruptive to agency operations, impairing his effectiveness" and lost the confidence of the board, Eisen wrote.

McCaskill said she now accepts Obama’s explanation for the firing.

Walpin said in the AP interview that when the White House asked for his resignation last week, the conduct at the meeting was not mentioned. "There was nothing like this that came up," he said.

In an AP interview last week, Walpin said, "I know that I and my office acted with the highest integrity as an independent inspector general should act."

Gay feds set to get benefits

President Barack Obama, whose gay and lesbian supporters have grown frustrated with his slow movement on their priorities, is extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, a White House official said.

Obama plans to announce his decision Wednesday in the Oval Office, the official said Tuesday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the president hadn’t yet signed the presidential memorandum.

The official said Obama would release more details Wednesday.

The decision is a political nod to a reliably Democratic voting bloc that has become impatient with the White House in recent weeks.

Several powerful gay fundraisers withdrew their support from a June 25 Democratic National Committee event where Vice President Joe Biden is expected to speak. Their exit came in response to a June 12 Justice Department brief that defended the Defense of Marriage Act, a prime target for gay and lesbian criticism.

Gays and lesbians also fretted as the White House declined to intervene in the cases of enlisted military members facing courts martial for defying the Clinton-era "don’t ask, don’t tell" policies. White House officials say they want Congress to repeal the policy as part of a "lasting and durable" solution, instead of intervening on individual cases.

"The president agreed that … the policy wasn’t working for our national interests, that he committed to change that policy, that he’s working with the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs on making that happen," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last month.

In the meantime, the administration has tried to make small, quiet moves to extend benefits to gays and lesbians. The State Department has promised to give partners of gay and lesbian diplomats many benefits, such as diplomatic passports and language training.

But without a specific change in the Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s promises left out financial benefits such as pensions. Obama’s move could make that shift.

Richard Socarides, a New York attorney and former senior adviser on gay rights issues to President Bill Clinton, was taking a wait-and-see attitude on Obama’s announcement.

"If it doesn’t include health insurance, if he doesn’t talk about the military and about the (Justice Department) brief, I think it will fall short," Socarides said in an e-mail late Tuesday. "Right now, people are looking for real action."

John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management and the highest-ranking gay official in the administration, told a gay rally last weekend that Obama planned to take action on benefits soon.

Obama faces boo birds at AMA confab

Barack Obama isn’t used to hearing boos.

For all the young president’s popularity, the response he got Monday from doctors at an American Medical Association meeting was a sign his road is only going to get rockier as he tries to sell his plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

The boos erupted when Obama told the doctors in Chicago he wouldn’t try to help them win their top legislative priority — limits on jury damages in medical malpractice cases.

But what could they expect? If Obama announced support for malpractice limits, that would set trial lawyers and unions — major supporters of Democratic candidates — on the attack. Not to mention consumer groups.

Every other group in the health care debate has a wish list and a top priority. Insurers don’t want competition from the government. Employers don’t want to be told they have to offer medical coverage to their workers. Hospitals want to stave off Medicare cuts. Drug companies want to charge what the market will bear.

Obama can’t give all of them what they want. Instead, he’s got to figure what’s just enough to keep as many groups as possible on board — without alienating others. It’s a fine line for him — and sometimes for them.

"It’s a coalition issue," said Robert Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health, an expert on public opinion and the politics of health care. "No major group is able by itself to sink health reform. But if numbers of them come together for different reasons, it could really hurt the direction the president wants to go in."

The doctors were only Obama’s first house call. He’ll be making his case to the other groups — and to the nation at large — in an increasingly energetic campaign to get a bill passed by the end of his first year in office.

AMA insiders shouldn’t have been surprised by Obama’s upfront refusal to consider malpractice caps.

The group couldn’t get that idea passed by a Republican Congress and president a few years ago. Some states have such curbs, but anyone who can count votes knows the chances for national limits are slim to none with Democrats in charge of Congress.

Instead, Obama left the door open to some kind of compromise on malpractice.

The president said he’s willing to explore alternatives to taking doctors to court. In the past, he supported special programs in which hospitals and doctors are encouraged to admit mistakes, correct them and offer compensation. Studies have shown the approach can work, because doctors’ refusal to acknowledge mistakes is one reason many families file suit.

Doctors have special reasons to be wary of the president’s plans to overhaul the health care system.

Not long ago, doctors’ decisions were rarely questioned. Now they are being blamed for a big part of the wasteful spending in the nation’s $2.5 trillion health care system. Studies have shown that as much as 30 cents of the U.S. health care dollar may be going for tests and procedures that are of little or no value to patients.

The Obama administration has cited such findings as evidence that the system is broken. Since doctors are the ones responsible for ordering tests and procedures, health care costs cannot be brought under control unless they change their decision-making habits.

"Change is scary," said Dartmouth University’s Dr. Elliott Fisher, a doctor turned costs researcher. "I think there is a fear of loss of autonomy, that someone is going to tell you what to do." Fisher collaborated on research that showed wild differences in health care spending around the country — and no signs of better health in the high-cost areas.

But Obama did not blame the doctors. Instead, he tried to woo them, much as he has done with recalcitrant foreign leaders.

"It’s the equivalent of international diplomacy. He’s got to make them feel like it’s possible to have dialogue about what the future looks like," said Blendon. "I think he’s starting out with the AMA, but before the summer’s over he’s going to reach out to a lot of the other groups."

Obama assured the doctors that his plan would provide them with objective information on what treatments work best, with new computerized tools to better manage their patient case loads, and with support for harried solo practitioners to form networks.

He promised that Washington would not dictate clinical decisions. And he asked the doctors to imagine a world in which nearly every patient has insurance coverage and they can devote their full attention to the practice of medicine.

"You did not enter this profession to be bean-counters and paper-pushers," Obama said. "You entered this profession to be healers — and that’s what our health care system should let you be."

That line got him an ovation.

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Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reports on health care policy for The Associated Press.