Health Care Reform Absent from Democratic Debate

Two hours of policy-heavy dialogue and, unless I missed it, not one of the five Democratic candidates for President uttered the words “Obamacare,” “Affordable Care Act” or “health care reform.” True, Senator Bernie Sanders brought up “Medicare for all” and declared that health care coverage is a right of citizenship. However, there was no mention of his remarks by the other candidates, former Senator Lincoln Chafee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Governor Martin O’Malley, and former Senator Jim Webb.

Update: October 14, 2015: Oops. There was a brief discussion of allowing undocumented immigrants eligible for coverage under the ACA. The focus of this segment was immigration and the candidates mention of health care was incidental. I don’t think this undermines the point of this post, but they did mention it. My bad.

Ignoring health care reform is a s pretty amazing development when you think about it. Health care reform was a big part of the Democratic presidential primary campaign in 2008. The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 turned American politics upside down adding copious amounts of fuel to the Tea Party movement. Yet, in the CNN/Facebook debate from Las Vegas … not a word.

I’m not saying CNN should have made health care reform the primary topic of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate. However, a short simple question soliciting short simple answers would have, I believe, highlighted some differences among the candidates. At the very least it would have contrasted the Democrats running for president from the Republicans seeking the office.

My hoped for question: “What changes to the Affordable Care Act, if any, would you seek if elected President?”

We know Senator Sanders’ response: he’d scrap the Affordable Care Act for a single payer system. Would any of the others join him? Maybe. Would any of them defend the health care reform law as is? Possibly. Quizzing the candidates on legalizing marijuana was of interest to some, no doubt, but, in my mind at least, finding out what they’d change in the ACA is both a more important and fascinating topic.Of course, given the topic of this blog, I am a bit biased.

Jeb Bush Reveals Health Care Reform Plan

Ironically, this is the day former Republican presidential candidate, Governor Jeb Bush, detailed his health care reform proposal. Calling the ACA a “monstrosity,” Governor Bush said the government should help Americans obtain catastrophic coverage (albeit with a preventive care component) to protect them from financial ruin, but not force individuals to buy and businesses to offer comprehensive coverage.He would require carriers to cover insured’s pre-existing conditions for individuals who maintain continuous coverage.

Under Governor Bush’s proposal, individuals without employer coverage would receive tax credits allowing them to buy coverage against “high cost medical events.” Governor Bush also called for raising the contributions limits allowed on health savings accounts.

Significantly, Governor Bush recognizes that the ACA can’t simply be repealed without serious adverse impacts on what he calls “the 17 million Americans entangled in Obamacare.” He calls for a transition plan to help them move from the ACA to the Governor’s system.

Governor Bush’s health care reform plan also calls for restoring state regulation of insurance markets, promotion of health information technology adoption, wellness rewards and innovation in care delivery models. An interesting, and maybe wishful, provision of his proposal is “an app on your smart phone that calls your doctor to your front door, just as it does for a car to come pick you up.”

Maybe Next Time

Health care reform in general and the Affordable Care Act will no doubt be a big part of the general election. Governor Bush has laid out one approach for Republicans. It would be nice to learn a bit more about what Democrats would do. CBS hosts the next one on November 14th. Maybe the issue will come up then.

Is requesting one straightforward health care reform question asking for too much?

 

Seeds of 1993 Health Care Plan Defeat Planted by Clinton

At the Democratic debate in Austin last week, Senator Hillary Clinton declared her experience in the 1990s in developing and promoting health care reform would serve her well if elected president. She claimed it would help her stand up to the special interests. Senator Barack Obama responded it was her approach to health care reform that doomed the effort. He is right. She is wrong.

Senator Clinton blames special interests, especially the insurance companies, for defeating the health care reform package she developed for her husband’s administration in 1993-94. There’s some merit to the claim. Tens of millions of dollars went to lobbying, advertising and organizing against the proposal. But while that level of spending would have made passage more difficult, if the plan had been well conceived and well promoted it would not have been enough. With Democrats in the White House and controlling Congress, the right plan, developed and sold in the right way should have been successful. And that was the problem. Under now-Senator Clinton’s leadership, the plan was developed in secrecy and presented to the public and decision makers with unforgivable ineptitude.

Senator Clinton talks a lot about reaching out to all points of view to fashion consensus policies and programs. Now. Then, however, it was her way or the highway. In late-1992 she began assembling a large group of very smart people to develop her health care reform package. They sequestered themselves in Washington and talked among themselves. Occasionally they’d seek input from outsiders. But like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, you were either on the bus or off the bus. And if you were off the bus, your opinions didn’t matter.

This created two problems. First, developing policy in an echo chamber rarely works. The results may look good when considered in a vacumn, but when exposed to the real world, one flaw cascades through the interwoven assumptions, reducing the whole to dust. The Clinton health care plan of 1993 and 1994 was beautiful to behold, an exquisite example of theoretical policy. It was also fragile. Because the Clinton administration was unwilling to accept advice or input or, heaven forbid, changes, from the outside, it lacked a foundation to withstand deep scrutiny. Much to the surprise of the Clinton health care working group, their plan was flawed. And those flaws led to the unravelling of the whole.

Second, excluding members of Congress from the process was just stupid. By ignoring even Democrats in Congress, there was no one at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue who had any stake in the outcome. In fact, it merely engendered hostility. I participated in three Congressional hearings, representing the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU is an association for health insurance agents and other professionals). None of the questioning dived deeply into the Clinton health care plan. There was plenty of questions concerning other reform proposals, but our criticism of the Administration’s plan was pretty well accepted by the Congressional panels.

The lack of an open process is one of the reasons Assembly Bill X1-1 failed in the California legislature. To their credit, the staff of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger consulted with far more “outsiders” than the Clinton health care task force. But these were seriel discussions held in private. No one really knew what the entire package looked like until months into the Year of Health Care Reform. As a result, when the legislation reached the State Senate, there were few there who had a stake in its passage. When faced with the state’s budget crisis, it was easier for them to let health care reform slide away.

The lesson is clear: developing health care reform requires an open, inclusive process. Every opinion and perspective needs to be represented. Senator Obama gets this. Unlike Senator John Edwards, who claimed he wouldn’t let the insurance industry participate in developing his health care reform legislation, Senator Obama said they’d have a seat at the table, they just wouldn’t be able to buy them all.

It’s this approach to openness and collaboration that holds the greatest promise of success. Senator Clinton tried the old way. It didn’t work. Her continuing the blame the special interests instead of her own mistakes for the defeat of the Clinton Administration’s health care plan shows she may not have learned the right lesson. And that’s another reason she’s no longer the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.