U.S. President Barack Obama has launched an effort to overhaul the health care system in the United States. Mr. Obama says the high cost of health care is straining the national economy.

The president says health care reform is no longer just a moral imperative, it is an economic imperative.

"If we want to create jobs and rebuild our economy and get our federal budget under control, then we have to address the crushing cost of health care this year, in this administration," said President Obama.

He says the goal must be to bring down medical expenses, while improving the quality of care for everyone.

The changes he is seeking are massive and will involve a huge infusion of government funds. But Mr. Obama says they are a needed investment in the nation's future.

"Making investments in reform now, investments that will dramatically lower costs, won't add to our budget deficits in the long-term," said Mr. Obama. "Rather, it is one of the best ways, in fact maybe the only way, to reduce those long term costs."

Mr. Obama is not the first U.S. president to try to tackle the health care crisis, which involves issues of both affordability and availability.

In recent decades, most Americans have relied on health care insurance from their employers to meet their rising medical bills. But businesses are cutting back on coverage and the ranks of the uninsured are growing. At the same time, government outlays for programs that provide subsidized care for the elderly and the poor are skyrocketing.

Past efforts to reach a meeting of the minds on health care reform have ended in stalemate. But the president says this time is different.

"This time, there is no debate about whether all Americans should have quality, affordable health care," said Barack Obama. "The only question is, 'How?'"

To that end, the president convened a White House meeting of groups with a big interest in health care and asked them to search for solutions.

They included doctors, consumers, unions, businesses, insurers and members of the U.S. Congress.  

Senator Ted Kennedy, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, returned to Washington for the session. The Massachusetts Democrat has been working the health care reform issue for years. He said he has never seen so many diverse views gathered together to tackle the problem.

"What it does is basically challenges all of us to really do the best we can," said senator Kennedy.

White House officials say Thursday's session was just the beginning of the reform process. More high level meetings are planned in the coming days, with Congressional hearings expected soon.