History Will Ignore Much of Today’s Health Care Reform Headlines

Living through historical moments can seem far less grandiose than reading about it. In the day-to-day grind of making history the big picture can get lost. Little issues take on huge proportions while overarching themes are hidden in the maelstrom. Historians get to step back, find the threads that build tension, create a narrative, and set-up the pay-off.

So it is – and will be – with health care reform. There have been a lot of distractions. For instance, critics of the Obama Administration have been pounding away at HR 3200, the House version of health care reform legislation. That legislation makes great fodder for 24-hour news channels and partisans across the spectrum. The bill offers something for everyone to demagogue. The fact that, in the end, HR 3200 – America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 – won’t have served as anything more than a lightening rod hardly matters.

The same can be said of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s proposal. The Senate HELP Committee’s and the House health care plans gave liberals something to cheer about and conservatives something to attack. My guess is history will show that was its greatest contribution to the debate. Yes, elements of these bills will be included in the legislation that will be signed into law by President Barack Obama later this year. But that’s because there’s always been a broad consensus concerning health care reform. It’s the 25 percent or so of the issue on which there is disagreement that is causing all the ruckus. And at the end of the day, I’ve longed believed it will be moderates who resolve the contentious health care reform issues.

And those moderates are almost ready to make their positions known. Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus has promised to unveil a formal proposal Tuesday or Wednesday. While it’s not certain that any Republican Senators will sign-on to the proposal, what Senator Baucus will propose will be far more moderate than the current alternatives. According to the Associated Press, Senator Baucus and the other five Senators negotiating a bi-partisan bill have made progress on several controversial items, “including health insurance for the poor, restrictions on federal funding for abortions, a verification system to prevent illegal immigrants from getting benefits, and ways to encourage alternatives to malpractice law suits.”

If compromises have been reached on these issues, HR 3200 and the Senate HELP Committee’s proposal will have played an important role. By being the most extreme bill available to critics during August it flushed out their attacks. This, in turn, made it easier for moderates to indentify the hot buttons they needed to address. A Washington Post story describing some of the solutions being developed by the Senate Finance Committee’s so-called “Gang of Six” underscores this. (The Gang of Six are Democratic Senators Baucus, Jeff Bingaman, and Kent Conrad along with Republicans Mike Enzi, Charles Grassley and Olympia Snowe). For example, illegal immigrants will be specifically prevented from obtaining any benefits from the insurance exchanges being contemplated. A government-run health plan – the means leading to a government takeover of health care according to critics – will not be missing from the proposal.

For the past few weeks, Republicans have associated President Obama with HR 3200 and the liberal Senate HELP Committee proposal. Yet he has embraced neither. Instead, he is has set the stage for circling the wagons around whatever moderate proposal emerges from the Senate Finance Committee. And Senator Baucus and the others are working hard to make that possible. For example, President Obama embraced a Bush Administration proposal to permit states to test approaches to medical malpractice reform. According to the Washington Post article, such a provision will be in the Senate Finance Committee’s bill.

Liberal critics of President Obama will accuse him of capitulating to conservatives on many of these issues, especially abandonment of a public option. Conservatives will say he’s proven himself to be a liberal tax-and-spender and government-expander (the proposal is expected to cost around $880 billion over 10 years). In the short term there will be much sound and fury over such issues by both sides. If the compromise health care reform solution put forward by Senator Baucus and his colleagues becomes law, however, history will little note nor long remember such histrionics. (Which, for those paying attention to the clichés in this paragraph would tend to prove that Abraham Lincoln trumps William Shakespeare).

So long as the outcome meets President Obama’s general principles for the health care reform the White House will declare victory. History will relegate talk of death panels, cries of socialism, and demands that government get out of Medicare (along with other government-sponsored programs) to footnotes, if that.

As with any major reforms, history will also likely show that the historic health care bill to come will accomplish less than its critics fear or than its advocates claim while at the same time bringing forward unintended consequences of significant proportion. But those problems will be a challenge for a future Congress and Administration. History, after all, is made one step at a time.

Health Care is Local

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously noted that “all politics is local.” And he’s right. He was not talking about the rules of the political game. Those are established by a national constitution and subject to state laws as well as local ones. He meant that the political dynamics of each district are what determines the ideological shading of a district.

Some examples are obvious: compare the voting record of legislators from Massachusetts and Utah. Others are less so: Republican Senator Charles Grassley had been a reasonable voice on health care reform until he remembered he was up for reelection in 2010 and saw how conservative Iowans were responding to unfounded claims of “death panels” and the like; he is now embracing aspects of the silliness.

Health care is local, too. The medical delivery system in Los Angeles looks far different from the one in Cheyenne. Even what’s considered standard treatment varies from community to community. And as Dr. Atul Gawande demonstrated in his New Yorker article, the cost of care varies greatly among localities based on medical provider’s approach to health care.

How the local nature of politics and health care interact underscores the complexity of health care reform. Because health care is local, what’s broken in the current system varies from place-to-place. Because politics and is local, acceptable solutions vary depending on locale. It may just be a coincidence, but it is worth noting that the initial advocate for community-based health insurance co-operatives, Senator Kent Conrad, hails from North Dakota where rural electricity co-operatives are common while many of those claiming only a government-run health plan will do represent urban areas.

Recognizing this dynamic, the the House Energy and Commerce Committee has described HR 3200’s impact on each Congressional District. (My thanks to Dwight Mazzone for bringing these documents to my attention). Reading through these is a glimpse of the richness and variety of America.

For example, in Wyoming (which has one Representative for the entire state) up to 19,000 businesses would be eligible for tax credits to pay for health insurance, 7,400 seniors would benefit from reducing brand name drug costs, much of the $23 million in uncompensated care hospitals and health providers face would be eliminated, and the tax surcharge to pay for reform would impact 3,120 households.

Compare this to the Los Angeles area district represented by Henry Waxman, the Chair of the Energy and Commerce. In California’s 30th District up to 14,300 businesses would be eligible for the subsidy, 5,200 seniors would see lower prescription costs, hospitals and other providers would be relieved of much of the $85 million in uncompensated care they deal with today, while 22,100 households would pay the tax surcharge.

The statistics cited come from legitimate sources, but are presented in order to muster support for HR 3200. Were the same information to be presented by House Republicans it would no doubt have a different spin. Nonetheless, the information is a treasure trove of insight into the local politics and health care that drives the health care reform debate.

These statistics should also give lawmakers demanding a single, one-size-fits-all solution to health care reform pause. As I’ve argued before, state health care reform efforts usually fail. America’s health care system is too large, too interrelated and too complex to be reformed on a state-by-state basis. States lack the tools needed to make meaningful changes work; the national government has those tools. However, the reforms themselves could benefit from local implementation. For instance, instead of creating one, national government-run health plan to compete with private carriers, enabling the creation of local health insurance co-operatives to generate competition where it is needed is more appropriate.

Finding the balance between federal and local management of health care is critical to a well-functioning medical system. It is also good politics.