History was made today. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved comprehensive health care reform legislation, the first Congressional committee to do so in decades. Never mind that the bill is well to the left of the emerging consensus concerning health care reform. Never mind that it passed on a party line 13-10 vote. What is meaningful is that a congressional committee moved comprehensive health care reform forward. Significantly, three House committees are likely to follow suit within the next three-to-four weeks.
The legislation approved by the Senate HELP Committee, which carriers a $600 billion price tag, would require individuals to obtain coverage, employers to help their workers pay for it, and carriers to accept all applicants regardless of their health conditions. Individuals and families earning up to 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($88,000 for a family of four) would be eligible for subsidies. The Associated Press provides additional information and reaction to the Committees vote, but in my mind, the details are secondary. The vote itself is what is significant. Remember, the Clinton Administration health care reform proposal was never voted upon by any Congressional Committee.
The Senate HELP Committee’s action testifies to the tenaciousness of the Committee’s chair, Senator Edward Kennedy, the political skill of Senator Christopher Dodd (who is leading the Committee while Senator Kennedy battles cancer), the political standing of President Barack Obama, and the widely recognized need for meaningful health care reform. Given that Senator Kennedy has been advocating for universal coverage since the 1960s it is fitting that his Committee was the first to act
No doubt there will be some elements of the Senate HELP Committee’s proposal in whatever legislation, if any, eventually emerges from Congress. However, as noted previously here, the Committee’s version of reform is to a large degree a negotiating position for liberals in the Senate. The proposal being written in the House of Representatives will be even more liberal. It is the Senate Finance Committee, where its Chair, Senator Max Baucus and ranking Republican member, Senator Charles Grassley, are seeking to draft legislation that will earn at least some Republican votes, that the outlines of the ultimate health care reform package is taking place.
There are still numerous contentious issues to work through, any of which could derail health care reform altogether. However, there is a surprising amount of common ground coming into view. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently released a study, Emerging Common Ground? An Analysis of Health Reform Positions, that describes (perhaps overly optimistically) several of these areas of general agreement. Among them:
- the nature of private insurance market reforms;
- the need for, and the structure of, a health insurance exchange;
- whether and how a government-sponsored “public plan” should be created;
- how best to leverage Medicaid and/or public programs to expand access;
- whether an individual mandate is needed;
- the scope and authority of government involvement in comparative effectiveness research;
- sequencing and scope of payment reform; and
- whether to limit the tax exclusion on employer-based coverage as a reform financing mechanism.
I’m not sure I agree that all of these are settled issues, but the study is worth reading nonetheless.
As I’ve written before, I believe health care reform is coming, but that’s no reason to panic. The status quo, while comforting in its familiarity, is unsustainable. History is the story of change. Health care reform history was made today. But in context it’s only a milestone — a significant milestone, but solely a milestone. Consider it one big step in a long journey toward something truly historic.