Health Care Reform is Coming, But it Won’t Be Easy

Personally, I think health care reform is inevitable. The need for change is simply too great. Too many people go without coverage, too many are insecure about the coverage they have. Controlling medical costs is a critical part of fixing the economy: businesses and state and local governments need relief. Political pressure for a solution — from across the ideological spectrum — has reached critical mass.

The reform process is well underway. President Barack Obama held a health care summit at the White House earlier this month. Several proposals are making the rounds. Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus has one.  Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Ted Kennedy and his staff have been actively meeting with stakeholders. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Bob Bennett have introduced the Health Americans Act, which is supported by several colleagues from both sides of the aisle. There’s the proposal put forward by President Obama during the campaign and embellished somewhat since his inauguration. Republicans have their plans and think tanks have theirs.

We’ve seen this before. In 1993 it looked like President Bill Clinton’s spent enormous political capital seeking health care reform. He failed. A recent Newsweek article by Katie Connolly outlined several reasons why the health care reform debate now is likely to be much different than the battles in 1993. The Clinton Administration failed in large part because their efforts were politically inept and inflexible. President Obama’s approach is much more open, inclusive and savvy.

Of course, at this stage we’re still dealing with generalities. The specifics, which is where the devil receives his mail, have yet to emerge.  When they do the hard part of the process begins. And that could be any week now.   The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery and Ceci Connolly reported today that “House Democrats, in consultation with the White House, will give Republican lawmakers until September to reach a compromise on president Obama’s signature health-care initiative ….”  Currently, several committees in both houses of Congress are holding hearings on health care reform. These, however, are more educational in nature, allowing interested parties to provide input and begin staking out positions. With little legislation before them the hard negotiations have yet to begin. Those discussions will have to start sooner than later if Congress is to meet the House Leadership’s September deadline. Given the complexity of health care reform it will require months of negotiations to find common ground. 

Finding that common ground won’t be easy. Already Republican Leaders are identifying deal killers. A National Association of Health Underwriters’ newsletter quotes Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee as identifying the Obama Administration’s call for a national health coverage exchange to compete with the private market as extremely problematic. The GOP won’t accept such a program, according to Senator Grassley, and Democrats are likely to insist on one. There may be a way to create an exchange that satisfies both parties, but that requires a lot more specifics than have emerged yet. 

(Note added 3/20/09 at 7:45 pm: the rift between Senator Grassley’s position and those favoring a government insurance plan is growing wider — and nastier. Carrie Budoff Brown, writing in Politico today, reports on “a four-day ad buy aimed at Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee who is increasingly vocal in his opposition to the government insurance option.” Health Care for America Now is leading the charge against Senator Grassley. At the White House Forum on Health Care the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee told President Obama that such exchanges were “‘an unfair competitor’ and could run private insurers out of business,” according to the Politico story. The article also notes that Senator Wyden found no Republican Senators willing support his bipartisan legislation if it included a government run health plan. “From a raw political standpoint, having talked to a lot of senators, I wouldn’t have any Republicans on the Health Americans Act as cosponsors if we had a public option,” he told Politico.)

There is a way for Democrats to pass health care reform without Republican votes. If a compromise fails to emerge by September, the House Leadership is pushing for a legislative process that would allow passage with simple majorities in both chambers. This would be accomplished through a process called “budget reconciliation.” Under the reconciliation rules, filibusters are not permitted enabling the Senate to move legislation forward with a simple majority of 51 votes instead of the 60 needed to end a filibuster. Democrats currently hold 58 seats in the Senate (including those of two independents who caucus with them) with one more likely to arrive from Minnesota. (Filibusters don’t exist in the House, making passage by majority vote the norm in that chamber).

But Democrats may have a tough time pulling together even 51 votes in the Senate. Senator Evan Bayh announced on MSNBC on Wednesdaythat 16 moderates in the Senate (15 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the party) have come together to provide a united, centrist voice to issues such as health care reform. As noted in the press release announcing the group’s formation, their goal is “to pursue pragmatic, fiscally sustainable policies across a range of issues, such as deficit containment, health care reform …” and others. With 16 members, this caucus, currently dubbed the “Moderate Dems Working Group” represents more than a quarter of the Democrats serving in the Senate. If even 10 0f these centrists stick together they’ll need to be a part of any deal struck on health care reform.  (A list of the 16 Senators in the group is below).

At the same time there are liberals in Congress who would just assume have government take over the health insurance industry and create a single payer system similar to that in place in Canada and many Western European countries. At the very least they look to a greater role for the government in providing health care coverage to middle class Americans (the government is already the primary insurer for older and low income citizens).  They won’t go quietly along with a solution they feel fails to assure universal and comprehensive  coverage.

What this means is that while health care reform is coming, getting there won’t be easy. But there is a way. President Obama has long talked of the need to focus on core principles and the desired outcome instead of on how we get there. He has even said that his campaign proposal for a federal health insurance exchange (the deal breaker identified by Senator Grassley) is negotiable. As noted in the Newsweek article, the president said at  the White House summit, “If all Americans could be insured at ‘an affordable rate and have choice of doctor, have flexibility in terms of their plans, and do that entirely through market, I’d be happy to do it that way.'”

This is the approach all lawmakers and interest groups — whether liberal, moderate and conservative — need to bring to the table. The health care reform debate will be heated, passionate and difficult. But if all participants focus on the goals, the means of getting there can be found.  Given the need, it better be.

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The 16 members of the Moderate Dems Working Group (who, hopefully, will work on coming up with a better name) are:

  • Evan Bayh (Indiana) – co-chair
  • Mark Begich (Alaska)
  • Michael Bennet (Colorado)
  • Tom Carper (Delaware) – co-chiar and a member of the Senate Finance Committee*
  • Kay Hagan (North Carolina) — a member of the Senate H.E.L.P. Committee*
  • Herb Kohl (Wisconsin)
  • Mary Landrieu (Louisiana)
  • Joe Lieberman (Connecticut)
  • Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas) – co-chair and a member of the Senate Finance Committee*
  • Clare McCaskill (Missouri)
  • Ben Nelson (Nebraska)
  • Bill Nelson (Florida) — a member of the Senate Finance Committee*
  • Mark Pryor (Arkansas)
  • Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire)
  • Mark Udall (Colorado)
  • Mark Warner (Virginia)

* The Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (H.E.L.P.) Committee have primary jurisdiction over health care reform legislation.

Obama Must Do Better on Health Care Reform

In his stump speech, during the presidential debates, highlighted in his 30 minute commercial, Senator Barack Obama has made clear that, were he elected president, health care reform will be near the top of his priorities. It’s viewed as a critical component in fixing the nation’s faltering economy, ranking alongside energy independence and a middle class tax cut at the top of his domestic agenda.

Senator Obama’s commitment to the issue is more than ideological, although he does see health care coverage as a right of all Americans. It is also highly personal. Senator Obama described the roots of his committment to health care reform in Sarasota, Florida yesterday this way: “And as somebody who watched his own mother lying on a hospital bed at the end of her life because they had cancer. The insurance companies were saying this was a pre-existing condition, maybe we don’t have to pay for your treatment, I know what it’s like to see a loved one suffer not just because they’re sick but because of a broken health care system.”

This combination of ideology, politics and the personal will assure that health care reform would be taken up early in an Obama Administration. Given his passion for the issue, the state of the economy and the real need to address serious problems in the current health care system, the odds are extremely high a comprehensive reform package will emerge sometime in his first term. Whether these reforms will be similar to what Senator Obama describes on the campaign trail, however, is, fortunately, both uncertain and unlikely.

One reason is because Senator Obama’s health care reform plan is seriously flawed. To cite just one example, a core attribute of his proposal is to require carriers to except all applicants for coverage without regard to their medical condition. As he put it in Sarasota, “… when I am president, we will end discrimination by insurance companies to the sick and those who need care the most.” This is a noble purpose, but if done wrong, it can lead to a health care reform surcharge that would increase the number of uninsured in the country while increasing costs in the system. The “wrong” way is require carriers to sell coverage without requiring consumers to purchase it. This, in essence, is how non-employer sponsored coverage works in New York and New Jersey. Average premiums in those states are more than twice what they are in California

The need for matching mandates, was integral to Senator Hillary Clinton’s health care reform plan. She perceived it more as a means to universal coverage, but also acknowledged that “adverse selection” is a real, proven phenomena. Imagine the premiums auto insurance companies would need to charge if drivers could wait until after an accident to buy automobile insurance. That is adverse selection and it is exactly what Senator Obama is proposing.

Another reason Senator Obama’s health care reform proposalis unlikely to survive the legislative process intact is it will need to compete with a host of other plans. Senator Ron Wyden (a Democrat) and Senator Bob Bennett (a Republican) have brought together a bipartisan coalition of Senators behind the “Healthy Americans Act.” Then there’s the proposal by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the National Institute of Health, who proposes a voucher system financed by a Value Added Tax and shares some elements of the Wyden-Bennett proposal. Senator Ed Kennedy is talking to Senators and policy mavens from across the political spectrum to develop a reform package he hopes to introduce in January. Republicans, too, have a host of ideas for reforming the nation’s health care system. Some might even look similar to the health care reform package advocated by Senator John McCain during this presidential campaign.

In short, there will be no dirth of ideas when Washington begins to address health care reform in 2009. Hopefully a coherent, workable plan will arise from this stew of policies and concepts. Senator Obama speaks of being open to other approaches. As he put it when speaking at a Families USA forum in January 2007, “… affordable, universal health care for every single American must not be a question of whether, it must be a question of how. We have the ideas, we have the resources, and we will have universal health care in this country by the end of the next president’s first term.”

As president, Senator Obama would do well to remember these words. There will be pressure to pass something and pass something quickly. The “First 100 Days” nonsense will be pushed forward as his only window for pushing through comprehensive reform. This is silly. It’s far more important to get health care reform done right than according to an arbitrary timetable.

Instead of rushing reform, President Obama should demand that all the “hows” be on the table. He should require participants to leave their egos and pride of authorship at the door. He should demand an honest appraisal and accounting of both what’s working and what’s not working in the current system. He should set forth the principles he expects to achieve in the process. Then and only then should the hard work of building a new, better system, one that will provide “affordable, universal health care for every single American” begin.

Congressional Health Care Reform Plan Waiting for New President

During their Ohio debate Tuesday night, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama spent the opening 16 minutes diving deep into the minutia of their health care reform plans. The public has heard the debate many times before. One might be forgiven for believing the differences actually matter. They don’t.

The reality is that health care reform will be a top priority for either of these candidates should they gain the White House. What plan eventually emerges will be negotiated, compromised and updated so much and so often, it may bear little resemblance to the proposals Senators Clinton and Obama have put on the table. And that’s fine. No one has the secret formula. Crafting the best health care platform for America should involve a great many people not yet heard from.

Then there’s the health care reform proposal already waiting for the new president. Sponsored by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Bob Bennett, the Healthy Americans Act is the most bi-partisan and prominent bill stewing in the current Congress — or any recent one, for that matter.  Supported by a dozen senators, six from each party, in many ways it goes much further than the plans being promoted by the Democratic presidential candidates. And compared to Senator John McCain’s market-based reform plan, it’s downright radical.

Twelve percent of the Senate is a long way from a majority. But it’s a start. Even Senators Wyden and Bennett don’t agree with every aspect of their bill. The plan requires all Americans to buy coverage. It does away with the preferential tax treatment of employer-based coverage, forcing individuals to purchase their own coverage through regional purchasing pools. While it’s not a single-payer system, those pools do mean multiple governmental agencies will be running the show.

The Healthy Americans Act is, as it stands, seriously flawed. But that’s not the point. The details of this legislation don’t matter any more than the specifics of the candidate’s proposals. What matters is the existence of a bi-partisan coalition of Senators waiting for a president who is serious about building a consensus to appear on the scene. That’s fertile ground for a serious debate and equally serious negotiations about a complex and vital issue. And that’s good news.