With Ohio’s help, President Barack Obama appears to be heading toward re-election.

That’s the prediction of CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, who was among a panel of high-profile speakers at Summa Health System’s annual Community Leadership Briefing on Wednesday in downtown Akron.

Although the latest polls give Obama a narrow edge over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, “I wouldn’t bet the farm,” Gergen added.

“It’s certainly one of the closest elections we’ve ever seen,” he said. “We’re a 50-50 nation these days.

“…We’re probably not going to know until Election Day who is going to win.”

Until Obama’s lackluster performance in the first presidential debate, he seemed poised to win re-election by such a convincing margin that he could move his ideas forward with less opposition, Gergen said. But as the margin has narrowed, the political fight Obama can expect to face during his second term has increased.

“The first debate did not cost him the presidency, but it did cost him a mandate,” Gergen said.

Regardless of who wins, the controversial federal health-care reform law known as “Obamacare” will remain a key national issue for years to come, agreed Gergen and the other speakers at Wednesday’s event.

Romney’s pledge to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act could prove difficult if he’s elected because the Democrats likely will hold onto a majority in the U.S. Senate, Gergen said.

It would be difficult to take away some of the popular changes that already have gone into effect, such as extending coverage to adult children on their parents plan, said Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George H. W. Bush.

“There are a lot of flaws in the bill,” Sullivan said. “It’s not perfect. But if it is repealed, not only is there confusion, but by the time we develop a national consensus on another system, it will be another decade.”

During his talk, Sullivan spoke about the need for an expanded health-care work force, particularly minority health-care providers, as health-care reform brings coverage to millions of Americans.

Sullivan is chair of the Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professions, an effort to build more diversity among health-care providers, including doctors, nurses and dentists. Though minorities make up more than a third of the nation’s population, they represent just 12.3 percent of doctors, 11 percent of nurses and 7 percent of dentists.

“The manpower issues will have to be addressed,” he said.

The state of Ohio still is determining whether it will expand Medicaid coverage starting in 2014 through the Affordable Care Act — a move the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year is allowed but not required, said Greg Moody, director of the state’s Office of Health Transformation.

At this time, the state is leaning toward letting the federal government run Ohio’s health exchanges, which will start in 2014 as a way for people to buy health coverage and get federal assistance with premiums if they qualify, Moody said. States must decide by Nov. 16.

In the meantime, hospitals are continuing to provide millions of dollars worth of charity care to uninsured patients.

During Wednesday’ event, Summa President Thomas J. Strauss told the audience of about 350 people that the health system provided $106.7 million in “community benefit” in 2011.

To keep their tax-exempt status, nonprofit hospitals report the free and reduced-cost care and other community services they provide.

Last year, Summa’s net cost for providing charity care was $14.3 million — a decrease from $23 million in 2010. However, unpaid costs for Medicaid patients increased from $19 million in 2010 to $37.8 million 2011 as more patients qualified for the program.

Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or cpowell@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.