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.

Outlines of Senate Finance Committee Health Care Reform Plan Emerges

Senator Max Baucus of the Senate Finance Committee is circulating a draft health care reform proposal that could form the basis for whatever reform package emerges from Congress. If there is going to be bipartisan health care reform legislation, this is it.

The draft reflects ideas from six members of the Congressional panel who have spent months trying to find common ground – Democratic Senators Baucus (Montana), Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico) Kent Conrad (North Dakota) and Republicans Mike Enzi (Wyoming), Charles Grassley (Iowa), and Olympia Snowe (Maine). The group, often referred to as the Gang of Six, has been working under tremendous pressure. Democrats have been pushing for action and liberals are concerned about giving up on, among others, provisions for a government-run health plan. Republicans have been equally vociferous on their three colleagues, some arguing that the GOP should seek to defeat any health care reform plan in order to deliver a political blow to President Barack Obama and others opposed to specific elements such as how to pay for insuring the uninsured. Rumors of the gang’s failure have been constant and consistent fodder for bloggers, talk shows and news programs, yet they keep on moving forward. The draft proposal is the most concrete evidence yet that these rumors are unfounded.

As reported by the Associated Press, the plan circulated by Senator Baucus includes a fee on insurance companies to help fund coverage for the uninsured, enabling non-profit co-operatives to compete with carriers, authority for health insurance exchanges (note: there would be more than one) to help individuals and small business purchase coverage, expansion of Medicaid, tax credits to help low- and middle income Americans buy private coverage, and a requirement for insurers to disclose their administrative costs and profits.

The Wall Street Journal describes Senator Baucus’ plan as requiring “most Americans to carry health insurance” and, in addition to a fee imposed on all insurers, would include a tax on “insurance companies when they offer particularly generous health insurance plans.”  The Journal describes the exchanges as providing “standardized information on insurance plans and pricing." The article also makes explicit what is generally assumed to be a part of any health care reform plan: carriers will no longer be able to exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions; drop insureds who become ill; and will cap out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Bloomberg reports that Senator Baucus’ proposal “works to reduce Medicare costs by rewarding doctors based on the quality of care provided, not the number of treatments or tests administered.”

The cost of the proposal is estimated to be $900 billion over ten years. The Senator is emphasizing that what he is circulating is only a draft and subject to change. However, he warned Senate Finance Committee members that they would need to suggest ways to pay for any provisions they suggest that increases the cost.

So what does all this mean? Well let’s get the obvious elements out of the way: the devil is in the details; it’s unclear how well the proposal goes after medical cost containment because the media tends to focus on what’s easier to understand (insurance reform) – the good news is there are indications reducing health costs is significant part of the package.

It’s also clear the proposal will be unacceptable to both liberals and conservatives. No problem, the more ideological on both ends of the political spectrum would be unhappy with any reform Congress is capable of passing. Liberals will complain because it doesn’t give government enough control over the nation’s health care system; conservatives because it gives government too much control over the nation’s health care system.

However, ideologues don’t pass much legislation, moderates do. And the Senate Finance Committee’s is apparently getting ready to pass legislation far more moderate than what has already been approved by the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee or by the three House Committees with jurisdiction.

Which means if the Senate Finance Committee actually moves forward something along the lines of the package being circulated by Senator Baucus, for better or for worse, what passes for moderate health care reform legislation is more likely to become a reality sooner rather than later.

Vacations Almost Over – It’s Time to Get Real

The August vacation is almost over and not a moment too soon. Vacations are supposed to be a time of relaxation, recharging, maybe even contemplation. It’s a break from the norm; a chance to get a new perspective on things.

Sometimes.  Then again there’s the vacation from hell where everything goes wrong and you can’t wait to get back home. The hotel that looked pretty in pictures turns out to make the Bates Motel look hospitable. And let’s not even get into the crowded airports and late flights. Such vacations are not about rest, their about survival.

When it comes to health care reform, August was more of the vacation as disaster variety. A month of demonization (fitting, somehow, for a vacation from hell), dark fantasies, and an ever increasing lack of civility. Instead of an opportunity for all sides to present their differing perspectives and to present persuasive arguments for their point-of-view we witnessed the Outrage of 2009. Sincere people whipped into a frenzy by those who profit from conflict and fear. It was not only a bad month, it was a sad one.

But that will soon be behind us. Labor Day marks the end of summer (at least psychologically if not astronomically). It will soon be time to get serious. Here’s my take on what we have to look forward in September. Some of these items are well publicized, others guesses, and still others the result of wishful thinking. As a whole, however, I expect this list identifies much of what is to come now that we’re done “relaxing.”

  • President Barack Obama will describe ObamaCare.
    According to the Associated Press, the White House is “considering a speech to spell out more details of his goals for overhauling health care ….” My guess is he’ll have to go beyond detailing goals and dive into specific on legislation. To date the President has been content to outline a broad definition of meaningful reform. There were advantages to this approach, but the downside is rapidly overwhelming those benefits. The Administration’s vagueness kept its options open, but allowed Congressional Committees to define the President’s health care plan in the public’s mind. The bills attacked during the various town hall meetings are Congressional proposals, not President Obama’s. The Administration needs to define “acceptable compromise.”  Otherwise opponents of change will continue to savage the process of reform, killing the purpose of reform without having to engage in a debate on policy.
  • The Senate Finance Committee will meet its September 15th deadline for issuing a bi-partisan proposal, or on September 16th we’ll see a Democratic proposal emerge from the committee.
    Senator Max Baucus, Chair of the Finance Committee, and his colleagues are to be commended for seeking health care reform that can gain the support of moderates in both parties. They have spent months working through both broad policies and minute details – hard work on easy issues, a herculean task when it comes to something as complex and controversial as health care reform. The time has come, however, to move on. They have created expectations that the fruits of their labor will be made public by September 15th. That expectation needs to become a reality. To date, President Obama has given them political cover by continuing to speak of principals as opposed to specific provisions. As noted above, however, that position is too tenuous to continue. If the Senate Finance Committee fails to bring forward a compromise plan before the President begins staking out firm political and policy positions their compromise won’t matter. If the Finance Committee acts first, however, the President can elevate their approach to the first proposal among equals. The most potent ordering of things is for the Senate Finance Committee to get specific first with President Obama following suit shortly thereafter. If handled correctly it would create a strong middle ground upon which moderates could take a firm stand.
  • The political attacks will continue and become more vicious …
    The Keith Olbermanns and Glenn Becks of the world have found a ratings magnet: vilify the opposition while rejecting any possibility that opponents might have a reasonable, albeit different, position. Demonizing opponents sells to those already on your side. As cable news blabbers have no need to make policy they are free to paint the world in deepest blacks and whites and “find their audience.” At the same time partisans on both sides are reveling in the fundraising bonus blind anger generates while, at the same time, proving their bona fides to core constituencies for future political efforts. As the August press coverage demonstrates, hate, slander, lies and fear sell. And there are plenty of politicians and media outlets willing to take advantage of this ugly reality.
  • … and the political attacks will become more subtle.
    At the same time the extremists will get even more viscous, lawmakers, who operate in shades of gray, will begin to prod opponents into compromises with stilettos as well as reasoned arguments. An example: Senior White House adviser David Axelrod’s claim that Republican Senators Charles Grassley and Mike Enzi have not acted in good faith during their discussions with Senator Max Baucus and other Senate Finance Democrats to produce a bi-partisan health care reform bill. The attack by Mr. Axelrod is both a means of assuring liberals that the White House is capable of playing hardball as it is of prodding the GOP Senators to continue negotiations.
  • The Status Quo is in for a beating.
    The only way to enact substantial change is to convince people the status quo is untenable. This is good news for reformers as the health care system’s status quo is untenable. Medical costs must be constrained or state governments and private businesses alike will be bankrupt. Families cannot live in fear of facing a choice between financial and health security. The medical infrastructure of emergency rooms and pro bono care cannot continue to handle their ever increasing burden. Advocates of reform will make this case repeatedly and in the harshest of terms. The resulting cacophony will be painful in many senses of the word, but it’s an inevitable part of the process.
  • Many issues will be in play, only a few will be discussed.
    Change will come, either thoughtfully and not. All Americans will benefit from a thoughtful approach.Such thoughtful reform includes tackling medical cost containment. Health insurance premiums, after all, reflect the cost of health care. Those premiums have doubled in the past 10 years, an unsustainable rate of increase. If we’re going to “bend the cost curve” as President Obama puts it, tough decisions will be required. Making those decisions is especially difficult in an environment when consultations on living wills is construed as creating death panels, but making them is essential nonetheless. Politically, however, lawmakers need a bad guy. So the public debate will focus on market reforms (Exchanges and public plans, pre-existing conditions and mandates to buy coverage) which permit the vilification of insurance companies while, hopefully, quieter arguments focus on cost containment. Hopefully, because if health care reform is to have any long term meaning, it needs to control costs.

By the end of the year President Obama will sign into law health care reform legislation. That final package may not look much like the legislation discussed at the town hall meetings in August, but it will dramatically change America’s health care system nonetheless. And when the raucous debates, political warfare and mongering of fear is over, when the reforms are signed into law but before the long process of making them work begins, hopefully there will be time for a real vacation.