Comprehensive Health Care Reform Not Very Comprehensive

Once upon a time it looked like Congress and the White House would deliver meaningful, comprehensive health care reform to the American people. They certainly started down that path. The talk was of “bending the cost curve.” And of tackling issues like medical malpractice. There was even promises being made of moving toward comparative effectiveness programs and away from the costly fee-for-service provider reimbursement model of today.

Those were the days, but they’re over now. Whether as a result of the August Town Hall ruckuses, lawmaker’s ignorance, or general cynicism, those ideas are pretty much a thing of the past. Yes, there are modest efforts in the current Congressional bills to control costs. But to call them modest is kind. Politicians and pundits. will claim that what’s moving through Congress will make health care coverage more affordable and relieve the burden of medical costs on American families, but few actually believe it.

Over the past few months, the focus of health care reform has shifted to health insurance reform. And while some changes in the way health care coverage is marketed and administered are necessary, those changes will do little if anything to bring down the cost of care. On the contrary, some of the proposals being considered will, it is generally accepted, increase insurance premiums.

This shift by lawmakers from comprehensive health care reform to simply addressing marketing and distribution reform is, to say the least, disappointing. It also shows the challenge in accomplishing major change in Washington. The partisan divide is deep and cynical. The extremes within each party are in ascendancy, making compromise – the life-blood of the legislative process – all but impossible.

So instead of passing real reform, changes to the system that would restrain medical cost increases, the goal seems to have shifted to passing something – passing anything – on which the “health care reform” label can be hung. The result will do little to increase the affordability of insurance coverage or to restrain medical cost inflation. Lawmakers choose to ignore this reality – and to distract attention from it by keeping the focus on whether Congress will create a publicly run plan to compete with private carriers.

Yes, health care reform is hard while taking on the insurance companies is easy. And, as I’ve mentioned, there are some industry practices that need reforming. Given the political realities in Washington it may be that health insurance reform is all that lawmakers are capable of delivering any time soon. 

The shame of it all is that the current health care system is unable to meet America’s needs. The status quo, most objective observers from across the political spectrum agree, is unacceptable. America is the only developed nation in which medical costs bankrupts families. The cost of medical care is overwhelming state governments, threatening their ability to deliver other necessary services. Medical cost inflation is outpacing growth in wages and general inflation, resulting in increasing numbers of families and businesses being priced out of health care coverage.

Meaningful, comprehensive health care reform is critically needed. It’s what the American people desire. But Congress and the White House seem unable to deliver. The fault is not solely with the Democrats nor solely with the Republicans. This is a bi-partisan failure. And hiding behind health insurance reform won’t change that reality.

Harry Reid’s Health Care Reform Dilemma: The Myth of the 60th Democratic Senator

If asked even two weeks ago I’d have said there was an 80 percent change or greater that meaningful health care reform would be signed into law this year. Now, however, I think the chances of such an outcome are far lower – still substantial – but much less likely.

One reason meaningful health care reform may not reach President Barack Obama’s desk this year is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is having difficulties in lining up the 60 votes necessary to overcome the inevitable filibuster from Republicans. Senator Reid’s problem is that while there are 60 Senators in his caucus, there are really only 59 Democrats plus Senator Joe Lieberman.

Senator Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats because he used to be one (he won re-election as an Independent in 2006) and he wants to be a Committee Chair (he chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee). However, he campaigned strongly for Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, even addressing the Republican National Convention. Senator Lieberman also has said he expects to campaign for Republican candidates in 2010. It doesn’t take much insight to predict that, were Republicans to gain a majority in the Senate, Senator Lieberman would be knocking on their door for admittance.

Senator Lieberman has pledged to support a filibuster of a health care reform bill that includes a public option.  While he recently seems to have backed off this threat, as Timothy Noah on Slate.com points out, the Senator’s position on health care reform has been … well, let’s call it a bit erratic. So let’s say Senator Reid puts forward a bill that Senator Lieberman can support, does that solve his problem?

Hardly. Remember Senator Roland Burris, he of the controversial appointment to the Senate by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. Senator Burris is threatening to oppose any health care reform bill that does not include the public option. As Senator Rollins is a bit of pariah in the Senate (many of its members, including his fellow Senator from Illinois, having called for him to resign) the Democratic leadership has little influence over his actions. So Harry Reid is in a bit of a no-win situation. Go after Senator Lieberman’s vote and he risks losing Senator Burris’ support. Accommodate Senator Burris and there goes Senator Lieberman.

Meanwhile, Senator Reid is forced to wait for an analysis of his proposal by the Congressional Budget Office. What they have to say about his efforts to blend the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s differing versions of health care reform will greatly impact the votes of moderate Democrats. Since only one Republican vote, that of Senator Olympia Snowe, seems to be in play, those moderate Democrats hold the key to whether the Senate can muster the votes for health care reform.

Given that the debate in the Senate will be long, slogging through the legislation will take quite some time. While Senator Reid would like to get a bill on the president’s desk before Christmas, this is a present that may need to wait for the new year. That, of course, complicates matters considerably as 2010 is an election year. Lawmakers hate doing controversial things in an even numbered year. (Why the difference between December 2009 and January 2010 makes a difference is one of those unanswerable questions that seem to be especially common within the Beltway).

On paper, Democrats have a 60-vote majority in the Senate. That’s a myth. In reality they have a group of 60 Senators who caucus together, but don’t act together. That’s actually good for democracy (the unanimity within the Republican caucuses in Congress demonstrates stronger party unity, but a lack of individuality that is somewhat startling). But the diversity within the caucus makes being Majority Leader a lot harder.

Health Care Reform Common Ground Meets Reality

So much for common ground on health care reform in the United States Senate. It wasn’t that long ago, May 30th to be exact, that Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus and Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Edward Kennedy issued a joint statement that read, “”For both of us, reforming the nation’s health care system to cut cost, improve quality and provide affordable coverage remains the top priority on our two committees.  We have worked together closely over many months and will continue to do so.  We intend to ensure that our committees report similar and complementary legislation that can be quickly merged into one bill for consideration on the Senate floor before the August recess.”

That was then. This is now: The Associated Press is reporting that the Senate HELP Committee is moving forward with legislation to create a government-run insurance plan to compete with private carriers. This provision, along with one imposing a $750 per worker annual fee on large employers who fail to offer health care coverage to workers, guarantees the legislation will pass through the committee with only Democratic votes. As I described in yesterday’s post, the committee has tried to position their public plan as more innocuous than was originally contemplated. It is not.

Meanwhile the Senate Finance Committee continues to seek a bipartisan health care reform package. The Associated Press story notes that, “As a result, a government-run option for coverage is unlikely to be included. Negotiations are centered on a proposal for a nonprofit cooperative to sell insurance as a competitor to private companies.” Co-ops can be considered public plans, but unlike the version proposed by the Senate HELP Committee, it is far more likely health insurance cooperatives will result in a more fair marketplace. The devil dwells in the details and we have not seen those yet. But if Senator Baucus is sincerely seeking GOP votes, and it appears he is, his committee will avoid a result that would eventually lead to a single, government-run carrier.

(Democrats on the House side of the Capital also pledged to work together — and they are doing so. The three committees with jurisdiction in that chamber are all working from the Tri-Committee Health Reform Draft Proposal. They expect to have their work done by the end of July. Like the Senate HELP Committee, their plan will include a robust government-run health plan.)

What’s significant about the divergence in approaches by the Senate HELP and Senate Finance Committee is that it makes responsible compromise more likely. Senator Kennedy and House Democrats are providing a haven for liberals in the debate. If liberals had 60 votes in the Senate, or even 50 for that matter, their legislative versions would foreshadow the final package. But as I noted yesterday, the fact that the Senate HELP Committee needed to dress their public plan in fig leaves of compromise is evidence they do not have the votes. Moderates will dictate what health care reform legislation passes Congress.

The Senate Finance Committee recognizes this reality. Heck, they are this reality. Which is why what this committee proposes concerning a host of controversial issues — requirements for individuals and/or companies to buy health care coverage, the structure, purpose and powers of an Exchange to present coverage options to individuals and small businesses, cost containment provisions such as turning to comparative effectiveness research for treatment guidelines — is so important.

It is not the common ground between the Senate Finance and Senate HELP committees that matters. It is the compromises reached within Senate Finance that will foreshadow the health care reform bill that winds up on President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature.

No One Defends the Status Quo. Nonetheless …

Health care reform is not for the weak willed. Just ask President Barack Obama. As Congress continues to draft legislation the President is expending his political capital to mobilize supporters of his reform package while at the same time seeking to soften the opposition. As tough as the task lawmakers face, President Obama’s is in many ways the more challenging.

Consider President Obama’s appearance today before the American Medical Association. According to the Associated Press, when he sympathized with the doctors on the need to address malpractice reform he was cheered. When he told them he did not oppose capping malpractice judgements as the way of accomplishing this, some booed. That the President brought up malpractice at all was enough to mobilize trial lawyers. The president of their primary lobbying organization, the American Association for Justice, issued a statement denying that defensive medicine leads to higher health costs, according to the Associated Press.

Then of course there’s the opposition from the insurance industry and others concerning the creation of a government-run health plan to compete with private carriers. Yes, compromises are being put forward to find common ground on this issue. Meanwhile, however,  there’s former-Governor Mitt Romney’s claiming on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday declaring that public plans are “a Trojan horse … a way of getting government into the insurance business so they can take over health care.”

Or take the Republican attack on the Administration for creating a working group to study the effectiveness of various medical treatments. Representative Tom Price, a former surgeon, accused the President of “seeking a government takeover’ of health care.” The committee, he claimed would turn into rationing boards that would instruct doctors what services they could — and could not — provide their patients.

In a similar vein, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyle and other GOP Senators introduced “The Preserving Access to Targeted, Individualized, and Effective New Treatments and Services (PATIENTS) Act. The legislation’s sponsors claim it is targeted at “comparative effectiveness research” which they claim is “commonly used in ‘socialized health care systems,” according to The Hill’s Blog. To its advocates, comparative effectiveness research holds the promise of eliminating much of the $700 billion in unnecessary medical spending incurred each year. It would also go a long way toward eliminating the disparity in spending profiled by Dr. Atul Gawande in his much discussed New Yorker article. Opponents do not address the difficulty in making politically free determination of what treatment is effective or not. Instead they attack it as empowering the government to determin who lives and who does not, even though current instances of comparative effectiveness programs in the United States are highly regarded by doctors, patients and others.

No one is defending the status quo. Not surprising since most people believe it is seriously broken. President Obama has rightfully framed the health care reform debate as an integral part of his economic recovery efforts. The reality is that American businesses are hamstrung by an often dysfunctional system. It’s equally true that hundreds of billions of dollars are wasted each year on defensive medicine, ineffective treatment and overpriced prescriptions.

The critical political puzzle facing President Obama is whether he can marshal the votes necessary to force through health care reform that causes pain to so many interests while improving on the status quo. He has some advantages other presidents have not shared. There is widespread agreement the status quo is unacceptable. He is extremely popular. His party holds significant majorities in both the House and Senate.

And did I mention the widespread agreement that the status quo is unacceptable? Because it is worth repeating. Opponents to reform have an advantage. They can zero in on one or two items they dislike knowing others will be attacking the package in other weak spots. To prevent the death of reform by a thousand cuts the Administration will need to fend off all of these attacks. Not an easy task. Among other tactics, it will require developing compromises that address opponents’ reasonable concerns without watering down the entire package so much it fails to improve on the current system.

That’s why health care reform is not for the weak willed.