WASHINGTON (AP) - Problems in the health care system have only grown more severe since a series of health care meetings more than two years ago yielded few results. So President-elect Barack Obama's transition team has set up a new round of public sessions it hopes will translate into real changes this time.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Obama's choice for secretary of health and human services, said Tuesday the increased problems since the 2005-06 meetings should ensure action in Congress.
"We wouldn't have had 8,500 of these discussions in a two-week period over the Christmas holidays a few years ago," Daschle said. "This is an indication of the degree of severity and concern that people have all over the country."
The public meetings orchestrated by Obama's transition team resemble an effort that took place in 2005 and 2006. Congress created its Citizens Health Care Working Group, which heard from 6,650 people at 84 meetings around the country and more than 14,000 in an Internet survey.
The group's recommendations were not acted on. The recommendations included guaranteeing health coverage for specific checkups and treatments and protecting consumers from high medical expenses.
A key message to Obama in the renewed sessions: Health reform doesn't have to be all about expanding health insurance. It can be about the little things too, such as shorter waits in the doctor's office and putting in place incentives such as free checkups that catch little problems before they became big ones.
That was the message Tuesday from two dozen seniors who gave their views about what ails America's health care system to Daschle. They listed a broad range of concerns, from four-hour waits to see a doctor, to the high cost of prescription drugs, to lack of Medicare coverage for certain treatments and medical devices.
Daschle said conversations like Tuesday's will put the new administration "on the right track" for overhauling the nation's health care system next year.
Alethea Campbell said she wants more emphasis on medical research, particularly for Alzheimer's disease. "My family is loaded with Alzheimer's. I feel like I'm going to be a victim of it," she said. "What is going to happen to me four or five years down the road? Who is going to take care of me?"
Eugene Kinlow wants greater emphasis on helping people live more healthy lifestyles. "A major part of the cost problem is us. We keep driving up the cost of health care, all of us, in our daily behavior and habits," he said.
And Frederick Gore wants medical providers to be less concerned about how they're going to be paid when a patient walks into their room with urgent medical conditions. "The other patients could see there was something wrong with me," he said. "I'm sitting there and can barely breathe and he's looking at how he's going to get paid."
Some 8,500 meetings similar to the one at the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center in Washington have been held around the country since Dec. 15. Daschle attended his second such meeting Tuesday, along with his mother, Betty. Obama's transition team will gather the information from those meetings and post the material on its Web site, http://change.gov. Daschle said the information would be used to help craft a health proposal.
Daschle said lawmakers will be more likely to take up health reform if there is enough pressure from voters. In a book published earlier this year, he urged the next president to quickly capitalize on the good will that comes with a new administration. He said the meetings will add to the sense of urgency.
"It will lead to members of Congress taking note. It will lead to governors taking note," Daschle said in an interview. "It's going to lead to a greater degree of commitment on the part of elected people."
About 25 people talked to Daschle about the problems they've confronted with the health care system. Most participate in Medicare, the government's health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
Although they had coverage for most treatments, they were not short of suggestions for improving the health care system. Some described waiting three or four hours before they could be seen by a doctor. Others talked of how they helped pay health care costs for uninsured children and grandchildren. And some longed for a return of the days when teenagers volunteered to work at local hospitals or senior centers.
"It's conversations like this that put us on the right track," Daschle told the audience. "It's discussions like this that give us a better understanding of how it should be done."