Lack of GOP Support for Baucus Health Care Reform Matters, But Not So Much

After months of trying to craft health care reform legislation that would garner at least some Republican support, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus appears ready to move forward without GOP support – at least for now. According to the Associated Press, Senator Baucus will release his proposal on Wednesday without any Republican co-sponsor. The media will claim this is a huge setback for Senator Baucus and for President Barack Obama.

Maybe, but I don’t think so. First, there is a possibility at least one Republican will support the legislation when it comes to a vote in committee. Politico.com reports that “Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who is considered the likeliest Republican to sign onto the bill, said she wants to wait to see how the committee process plays out. “’I am committed to this process,’” Snowe said. “’I want this effort to continue and I am going to work through all these issues and the committee process will advance that as well and we will continue to work together.’” While the other two Republicans working on bi-partisan legislation sounded less upbeat, they have not completely closed the door to supporting bill either.

The second reason the lack of any Republican support may not matter much in the long run is that Senator Baucus’ bill will appeal to Democratic moderates. And while Republican votes would be useful, it is moderate Democrats that hold the key to health care reform. Without the support of most of the members of the Moderate Dems Working Group in the Senate or the Blue Dog Coalition in the House, Congress cannot pass health care reform legislation. There are 18 Democratic Senators who are a part of the moderate group. At least eight of them must support legislation for it to pass. In the House, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 257-to-178, there are at least 52 members of the Blue Dog Coalition. They need at least 13 of them to support reform legislation.

Yes, there are more liberals in Congress than moderates. And some of these liberals are threatening to oppose health care reform that does not meet their litmus test of including a government-run health plan. But it’s much easier for a moderate to oppose health care reform than it is for liberals.

A moderate can stand on the floor and claim the bill is too expensive or involves too much government. Given their districts, this is unlikely to hurt them politically. In fact, it will likely help them in the upcoming election.

For a liberal to oppose one of the most important priorities of the Democratic Party because it doesn’t go far enough is a much tougher message. They must claim that millions of Americans should go without health care coverage because the bill isn’t ideologically pure enough. They must explain why insurance carriers should be permitted to continue to deny coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions because the legislation doesn’t include a public option. In other words, liberals need to argue that the status quo is better than any reform. That’s not only a tough argument to make, it’s a foolish one.

Senator Baucus would love for Republicans to support his health care reform bill. President Obama would too. But they don’t need Republicans to support the bill. They need moderate Democrats.

Senator Baucus is pitching his proposal to those moderates. If he succeeds and if President Obama can get liberals to vote for what they will perceive is a partial loaf, then health care reform passes. If either fails in their assignment, so does health care reform.

It’s that simple. And that complicated.

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.

Health Care Reform and the Euthanasia Hoax

Health care reform is complicated. Constraining the cost of medical care in the face of an aging population, new technologies, and increased health care expectations is hard. Providing health care coverage to the millions of Americans who cannot afford it or feel they don’t need it is challenging. And the list goes on.

Given this reality, one might hope the focus of the nation would be on the many legitimate public policy differences worthy of debate. Are current proposals for a public plan creating fair competition with private carriers or unfair competition? What is the appropriate role (if any) for an exchange? How can comparative effectiveness research restrain medical costs without shackling doctors to menu medicine?

Unfortunately attention is being diverted from these substantive issues to those which generate fear and conflict, but do nothing to illuminate or resolve tough issues.

Take euthanasia, or what former Governor Sarah Palin refers to as the “death panels.” Section 1233 of "America’s Affordable Health Choices Act" (HR 3200) is the source of this controversy. Section 1233 makes consultations between patients and doctors concerning end-of-life discussions a covered expense under Medicare. It does not require these discussions. Nor does it require patients to consult with a government panel nor is the patient obliged to take any action as a result of the discussion. All this section does is reimburse doctors for taking the time to talk about what services (such as palliative care and hospice) Medicare will cover and how powers of attorney, living wills, and the like work. That’s it. And it only covers these consultations once every five years, when there is “a significant change in the health condition of the individual,” or when the patient enters a skilled-nursing facility, nursing home or hospice. In other words: twice a decade or when the individual needs to talk about these matters.

Section 1233 is written in legislative language which is, admittedly, difficult to follow (but then, it is legislation). Take the time to read it, however (it starts on page 424), and it clearly does not encourage euthanasia. It takes a substantial twisting of common sense and logic to make it even seem so. Apparently it’s all about “context.” Here’s Governor Palin convoluted reasoning as presented on her Facebook page:

  1. President Barack Obama has said that one purpose of health care reform is to “bend the curve” on medical costs. Authorizing payments for end of life consultations is, consequently, a cost cutting move. Costs will be reduced not by informing patients of lower cost options (hospice versus nursing home versus hospital care versus home care), but by encouraging the patient to commit suicide.
  2. Because HR 3200 calls for paying doctors to have these consultations physicians will have an incentive to initiate these talks. Due to the fact that doctors are authority figures in white coats, unwilling seniors will be pressured to have them. In order to reduce overall medical care spending in the country, doctors will use their influence to coerce patients into “’formulation’ of a plug-pulling order right then and there. Apparently doctors are so greedy a fee for spending time with a patient is enough to turn Dr. Welby into Dr. Kevorkian. Yet they are so patriotic they will kill off their patients in order to reduce health care costs. They also must be dumb. Because if they initiate these discussions only to make a few bucks, you’d think they’d be smart and  greedy enough to figure out that dead patients pay no bills. If Governor Palin was being consistent, wouldn’t she assume the doctors would be encouraging people to hang in there and consume as much health care services as possible?
  3. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an advisor to President Obama on health care and the brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has written that medical spending needs to take into account the patients age, condition and chances of recovery. While I haven’t seen Dr Emanuel’s statements in context, what do they have to do with the legislation? The language of a bill is the language of a bill. What someone wants it to say does not trump what it does say. You’d think a governor might know that.
  4. So, as mentioned, it all comes down to context. Health care reform is about cutting medical costs, doctors are greedy, patriotic and stupid, and what a presidential advisor says trumps the clear meaning of the legislative language.  Given this context, Section 1233 can only be read as a cost cutting measure that will encourage doctors to talk their patients into committing suicide. (I still don’t see where the death panels come into this. They must be in the fine print only real Americans can see).

Maybe it’s me, but this doesn’t strike me as logic. But it does look like fear mongering. Or ignorance. Or maybe it’s just evidence of a world view that sees Democrats as elder-killers, doctors as untrustworthy, and older Americans as incapable of comprehending that that suicide is not only illegal, it’s optional.

Nah. It’s fear mongering.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose the health care reform put forward in Congress thus far and to fight for a better reform package. Let’s stick to the rational ones.