Massachusetts Offers Both Parties a Window of Opportunity for Health Care Reform

Not that anyone asked, but here’s some free advice to both Democrats and Republicans in Washington: don’t over think what’s happened in Massachusetts. There are as many interpretations of the “meaning,” “message” and “impact” of state Senator Scott Brown’s victory Tuesday night as there are television pundits. And just like paranoids noodling with a conspiracy theory, the facts can be manipulated to prove anything (I’ve heard all of these in the past 24 hours or so): President Barack Obama was too liberal; he tried too hard to be bi-partisan; he didn’t move fast enough on health care reform; he moved too fast on health care reform.

Or that the special election results prove that the Republican strategy of non-cooperation with Democrats is working; that the Republican establishment is out of step with Republican grass roots; that the country is irretrievably locked into blue/red gridlock; that the Republicans are branding themselves up as barriers to progress.

Or that Attorney General Martha Coakley defeat reflects voters feelings about the two candidates; what they think about President Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and/or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; that Republicans are assured of victory in November; that Democrats have had a wakeup call and will rebound; or that the results reflect the skill (or lack thereof) of the candidates and their campaigns.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. One could argue that it means all those things and more. Usually, however, the simplest interpretation is usually closest to the truth: voters rejected Republicans last year because they were fed up with political games, hypocrisy and ineptitude. They are rejecting Democrats this year because they are fed up with political games, hypocrisy and ineptitude. The reality is that both parties have shown a remarkable inability to govern this complicated country let alone unify its diverse political viewpoints.

So instead of wasting time trying to squeeze every nuance out of the Boston-brewed tea leaves, my advice to both parties is to take advantage of the window of opportunity that election created between now and President Obama’s State of the Union Address to reinvent yourselves. Because let’s face it, voters don’t like either Democrats or Republicans. And why should they? Democrats lost sight of the reality that this is a centrist country. And Republicans have lost sight of the need to stand for something besides “we’re not those guys.”

Not surprisingly, given the topic of this blog, I think health care reform provides both parties with the chance to prove they deserve votes for something other than being the best of two evils.

Democrats have to stop acting like every member of their party thinks alike. Liberals seemed to think that with 60 votes in the Senate they’d quickly adopt the Progressive Caucus’ wish list. If they’d looked past their own hubris they’d have noticed that some of the folks in their caucus room were pretty darn moderate – heck, some are downright conservative. And they were elected as Democrats, too. Which means their views and votes are just as “Democratic” as those of liberals.

Given that the liberal agenda was never within reach and now is even more remote, think carefully about what you do next. Pass health care reform through some political legerdemain and you’ll only confirm to independent voters that you’re more interested in political games than acceptable public policy. (And remember, it’s independents that will determine the make-up of Congress. Consider: there are perhaps only 50-75 House seats winnable by either party – most Congressional seats are so solidly in one camp the seats are safe for the party who holds them now, assuming the incumbent avoids scandal or indictment).

Instead of passing health care reform in the next 24 hours, promise to take a step back and reconsider some of its elements. Then streamline the bill down to the essentials. What really matters when it comes to health care reform?

  • Restraining costs. There’s some interesting cost containment ideas buried in the current health care reform proposals. Paring the legislation down to its essentials will allow Democrats to make these ideas more prominent. Add some stronger malpractice reform language for good measure. Sure defensive medicine’s impact on costs is perceived as being far greater than it is, but let’s face it, Democrats have a perception problem. Pushing malpractice reform takes a talking point away from Republicans, shows independents that Democrats can stand up to trial lawyers, and can become a symbol for how serious Dems are to tackle runaway medical costs.
  • Unshackle Consumers with Pre-Existing Conditions. In America today, if you don’t get coverage through your employer and you have an existing medical condition, you’re out of luck. You may want to buy health insurance. You might be able to afford health insurance. But if you don’t already have coverage, you’re not going to get it. And if you do have coverage you’re stuck with it. Carriers can raise the rates, lower the benefits or both and you’ve got nowhere else to go. Most voters know someone in this predicament. Many voters are in it themselves. Require carriers to accept all applicants (what’s called “guarantee issue.”) But do so responsibly. Either require everyone to buy health insurance (called an “individual mandate”) or impose a meaningful penalty for failing to do so. Otherwise, costs will skyrocket as everyone waits until they need coverage before they purchase it – the equivalent of buying auto coverage from the tow truck driver hoisting your car after an accident (what’s called “adverse selection”). The problem is that Republicans have painted individual mandates as the devil’s work, forcing consumers to buy policies they may not want. So let the carriers provide the discipline: if a consumer fails to purchase coverage within a specified period of time after becoming eligible for it (for example by becoming too old to be covered as a dependent on their parent’s policy or losing employer-sponsored coverage) allow carriers to exclude pre-existing conditions for 12 months and to charge a 10 percent higher premium for two years. This makes those who choose to self-insure accountable for their decision while still allowing themselves a path back to responsibility.
  • Reduce the Number of Uninsured and Underinsured. Most Americans acknowledge there’s something wrong with America’s high number of uninsured. Whether the actual number is 47 million uninsured (greater than the population of California) or some lower number, the fact is it’s too many. Those with coverage pay a tax to support the uninsured, estimated at roughly $1,000 per year in higher insurance premiums. So expand Medicaid. Close the doughnut hole in Medicare prescription benefits. Offer subsidies to Americans who cannot afford premiums, but fail to qualify for government programs. Just don’t create new bureaucracies to do it. Voters know new agencies generally do more harm than good. Why feed the suspicion?
  • Reduce the Cost of Health Care Reform. If a reform package sets in motion medical cost containment, makes coverage portable, and reduces the number of uninsured – and that’s about it, the cost will be far less than what’s currently contemplated. Put on the table a tax on the wealthiest Americans (removing the tax cut President George Bush gave those earning more than $1 million per year. Then offer to replace the tax with revenue provisions Republicans offer. If they object to any revenue increases of any kind, then they will have fully embraced their branding as the do nothing party.  That’s a recipe for turning their current momentum into failure.

Which brings me to advice for Republicans. Waving a sheaf of paper at a presidential address on the floor of Congress is not proof of a Republican plan. Introduce a plan that the Republican caucus in both the Senate and the House can support. Submit it to the CBO for scoring. Treat it like a real bill. Demand hearings. Declare it a starting point for negotiations and then set up a time and place for a meeting to negotiate. If Democrats don’t show up Republicans will have enough political fodder to last two, maybe three, election cycles.

Sure, Rush Limbaugh won’t like it. He wants President Obama to fail and wants Republicans to fight every step he tries to take. But independent voters want America to succeed. They don’t care about who gets the credit, but they do care about appropriate progress. And they know achieving this means legislation that both President Obama and Republicans consider acceptable. So put together something that can gain votes beyond a Chamber of Commerce luncheon (see the above for some ideas). Remember, obstinacy is not a rallying cry. And if the GOP is not not careful, someone will remind voters that Republicans controlled Congress and the White House for six years, but never even considered meaningful health care reform. Voters don’t want the wrong health care reform, but that does not mean they don’t want any health care reform. The status quo is imposing hardship on more and more Americans. They need and deserve help. If Republicans want voters to return them to power in 10 months, they need to demonstrate leadership today.

As far as changes go, please get real. Allowing plans to sell across state lines undermines state’s rights. Republicans are for state’s rights, remember? Telling voters in California that policy makers in South Dakota will determine what’s adequate consumers protections when it comes to health insurance is lousy public policy. Republicans should go through their various proposals and cobble together a coherent package. And they should make it clear they want to pass some kind of health care reform. Proclaiming the status quo as adequate is unlikely to fly as a platform for very long.

The Massachusetts Senate race is the story of the week – and then some. Yes, it will have long term political ramifications, but eventually it will be yesterday’s news. Some other issue, scandal, disaster or discovery will take its place. For now, however, Senator-elect Brown’s upset gives both Democrats and Republicans a chance to prove they’re the party of the future, not the party of the left or of no or of, worst of all, the recent past. Whether either will choose to seize the opportunity is anyone’s guess. What’s yours?

Of course, what’s significant about the Massachusetts special election is not what I think it should mean, but what the actual impact it has on health care reform. Which I’ll be writing about as soon as the crystal ball clears a bit.