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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Shirley Hunter reviewed her finances to make sure she could afford to retire in 1999, she never banked on health care costs more than doubling in less than a decade.
Now the 74-year-old former California kindergarten teacher finds herself under financial pressure. Despite taking lodgers to help pay the bills, she worries about losing her home or having to choose between mortgage, food and health insurance.
"I'm on a fixed income. Nothing else is fixed," Hunter said. "I can't afford to travel right now or anything. It's very disappointing to work like I did and then have this happen."
Hunter, who told her story to a community healthcare discussion in Costa Mesa, California, is one of millions of Americans looking for President-elect Barack Obama to make good on his campaign promise to tackle the U.S. healthcare crisis.
Obama's choice to lead the reform effort, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, testifies at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday -- beginning a process to change the nation's health care that could be one of the most ambitious and expensive undertakings of the Obama presidency.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, a senior member of the committee conducting the hearing, met with Daschle on Tuesday and predicted things would go "very smoothly."
"We all know the enormity of the task at hand, and it is a comfort to know that in Tom Daschle, we'll have a true leader, someone who has navigated these rough waters before," Dodd said in a statement.
The United States spent $7,421 per person on health care in 2007, some 16 percent of Gross Domestic Product, but does worse in many areas of care than other developed countries.
Employers complain that rising healthcare costs put them at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy, driving up the price of everything from a car to a cup of coffee. This has become more acute during the current economic turmoil.
"We can't afford to put domestic priorities like health care on the back burner," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "This will certainly be a priority for him and for the new administration once he's sworn in."
Daschle and his team have helped organize thousands of grass-roots meetings across the country to try to understand the health problems people face and the changes they want.
Some 8,500 people signed up to host the sessions like the one Hunter attended in Costa Mesa. Daschle himself attended two -- one in an Indiana firehouse and the other at a Washington, D.C., senior center.
Feedback from people contacted by telephone after the meetings shows the scope of the problem.
"As a nation we're spending way too much money and we're not getting much value for it," said Dr. Allan Wilke, a family practitioner who attended a discussion with other doctors at a medical center in Huntsville, Alabama. "I think we all know the system has got to be fixed."
The doctors' biggest worry was the 46 million uninsured who put off going to the doctor until they visit a hospital emergency room, a costly form of care for conditions that are often preventable.
Expanding health insurance coverage was a frequent topic. Teenagers who participated in a discussion sponsored by Planned Parenthood in Utica, New York, worried about workers who earn too much to receive government-sponsored health care but cannot afford health insurance.
Preventive care came up at the session in Alabama, where obesity is a problem, and again in Frankfort, Kentucky, where a group of health professionals and public health officials met.
"Prevention was the big topic for us," said Anne Donworth, a hospice executive at the Frankfort discussion. "As a society we need to focus more on emphasizing taking good care of yourself and ... early diagnosis and prevention measures."
The industry's economic structure also was seen as flawed.
Attorney Kenneth Zwick, who attended the session in Costa Mesa, said he thought the profit motive warps how the healthcare system works.
"As long as insurance companies, who I sometimes litigate against, are as concerned with their bottom line as they are with the health of their people ... we will never have, I don't think, an effective or appropriate healthcare system," he said.
The Alabama doctors discussed placing more emphasis on paying for preventive care.
"If you incentivize the system so that the quality measure is lower blood pressure, better control of diabetes, etcetera, etcetera, if you pay me to do that, you'll get what you pay for," Wilke said.
additional reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by David Wiessler