Why Liberals Won’t Kill Health Care Reform

For those opposed to the current versions of health care reform moving through Congress it might be enjoyable to see the Democrat versus Democrat circus currently underway in Washington. Both parties are susceptible to the joys of circular firing squads, but the Democrats are embracing the concept with exceptional glee of late as liberals and moderates in the Democratic caucus brawl over the shape of health care reform legislation. But at the end of the day there’s several reasons why it’s highly likely all 60 members of the Democratic caucus will vote to move the bill forward.

  1. The Senate is not voting on a final health care bill. Yes, passage of health care reform by the U.S. Senate would be a historic milestone, but just a milestone. What emerges from the Senate will go to a conference committee where the final health care reform bill will be drafted. This makes it easier for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to muster the necessary votes. For example, Senator Ben Nelson who is threatening to vote against allowing a vote on the legislation unless it’s abortion language is modified, can make it clear he’ll vote “aye” now to keep the health care bill alive, but he’ll vote against it if the conference committee doesn’t address his concerns. The liberals who are claiming the legislation is a bail-out of the insurance industry can make the same claim: “I’ll vote for it now, but it needs to get better in conference.”
  2. Liberals opposing the bill don’t vote. With the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, most of the complaints have come from liberals outside of the Senate. Former Governor Howard Dean was the first well-known liberal to call for defeating the Senate health care reform bill. he was soon joined by Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and folks at the Daily Kos blog. The AFL-CIO and SEIU are also making noises about killing the bill and starting over. But killing the bill would require liberals to tell millions of Americans that preventing health insurance companies from denying them coverage isn’t adequately progressive. Or that preventing carriers from dropping insureds when they get sick isn’t sufficiently liberal. Or that eliminating annual and lifetime caps on insurance coverage is unimportant to liberals. Or that making health insurance accessible and affordable (through subsidies) for millions of the currently uninsured fails to meet the definition of “good enough.” Liberals will complain. They’ll whine and threaten. At the end of the day, however, it’s unlikely any liberal wants to go down in history as the vote that postponed health care reform for a generation (see reason #4, below). Mr. Olbermann gets paid to talk so the commercials on his Countdown show don’t run together. He doesn’t have vote in Congress. Neither does Governor Dean. What they say matters only within the bubble known as cable news. Having a vote in Congress is a responsibility the pundits lack, but lawmakers take very seriously – seriously enough to keep health care reform legislation moving forward.
  3. Liberals are upset over more than just the public option. While dropping a “robust” public option from the Senate health care bill is generating the most recent complaints from the left, threats to defeat the bill result from several disappointments. Many liberals support a single payer system and see a government-run health plan as a compromise. They look at the requirement for everyone to purchase health insurance and ask a reasonable question: what is to stop carriers from gouging the public? (Hence proposals for requiring high medical loss ratios). Then there’s efforts by anti-abortion groups to use health care reform to insert language that goes beyond the current status quo embodied by the Hyde amendment. Some progressives also are upset pure community rating is absent from the bill and the fact Health Savings Accounts will survive the reform effort. As the end game approaches, it’s not surprising that passions rise and frustration bubbles over. Especially for liberals about to vote for what they consider disappointing legislation, venting their displeasure is to be expected. Venting displeasure, however, is not the same as blocking health care reform.
  4. Liberals won’t get a better bill any time soon. Progressives were understandably delighted by the 2008 election results. President Barack Obama had a demonstrably liberal voting record and still won in what can legitimately be called a landslide. Democrats had substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. What was overlooked is that the Democratic Party (and the president) is more centrist than true liberals like to believe. In fact, nearly one-third of the Democratic Caucus are also members of the Senate Moderate Dems Working Group. Anyone not trying to sell Viagra and auto insurance (which leaves out Mr. Olbermann) has known for months that health care reform would be shaped by these moderate Democrats Senators. And if liberals think they’ll be replacing these moderates with more liberal Democrats they’re spending too much time in a different space-time continuum than the rest of us. The chances of liberals taking the seats of Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Evan Bayh (Indiana), Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), or Clare McCaskill (Missouri) any time soon are extremely slight. The reality is that Republicans are likely to pick up several seats in the Senate and House in 2010. Historically, the mid-term elections go poorly for the party in the White House. What this means is that for liberals, the current Congress is as good as it gets. Starting over would likely result in reforms even more moderate than what’s being considered today. That’s why Republicans are doing everything they can to slow down the health care reform process. They know the longer the process takes the more likely health care reform is likely to fail and that future attempts will be more to their liking. Liberals in the Senate know this. The Governor Deans of the world can ignore this fact, but lawmakers have to deal with reality, not the fantasies of ideologues.
  5. There’s always tomorrow. To think that whatever health care reform legislation President Barack signs into law health care reform legislation early next year will end debate on the issue for the rest of his Administration is naive. As Republicans gain strength they’ll seek to modify whatever is enacted. Democrats will attempt to expand reforms through more targeted legislation. Whatever health care reform bill emerges from Congress this session should be viewed as a foundation for future political fights, not the end of them.

Could health care reform fail because of attacks from both the left and the right? Yes. Is it likely to fail because liberals join Republicans in torpedoing health care reform? Not really. I don’t envy Senate Majority Leader Reid his task, but my guess is he’ll soon have the 60 votes needed to bring health care reform legislation to the floor of the Senate. Then if some of the liberals want to make a symbolic vote against the reform package they can go right ahead. Once the bill is brought before the Senate It only take 51 votes to move the legislation forward to the conference committee.

Of course, whether whatever health care reform legislation the conference committee can draft will secure enough votes is still very uncertain. But we will have the chance to find out.

Health Care Reform 2009: More Required Reading

There’s a lot of moving pieces to the health care reform process currently underway in Washington, D.C. Politics, policy, and personal interest are all colliding as lawmakers and President Barack Obama Administration try to fix what everyone is calling America’s broken health care system. To put the debate in context it helps to know what the participants are thinking. To understand what they’re thinking it helps to know what their reading and writing.

Earlier this year I put forward a list of required reading for understanding the health care reform debate. Here’s the second installment of what will be a series of such posts. (Note: a third list of required health care reform reading was added August 2, 2009).

1. The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Senator Max Baucus, will play a major role in determining the health care reform legislation that is likely to arrive on President Barack Obama’s desk this Autumn. And they are taking this role very seriously. The Committee has produced three policy option documents to facilitate their deliberations. The policy papers don’t describe what the Finance Committee will decide upon, but it does provide insight concerning what they will be deciding upon. The option papers are:

2. The Senate Finance Committee isn’t the only one in the upper house with jurisdiction over health care reform. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and its chair, Edward Kennedy, will have a great deal to say about the final legislative package as well. The Committee released an outline of its reform plan yesterday. I have yet to get my hands on that document, although I did find a Senate HELP Committee Briefing Paper dated May 21, 2009.  (When I get a copy of the most current outline I’ll post it here). In addition, as I’ve posted previously, Senator Kennedy recently described his vision for health care reform in some detail. The HELP Committee’s plan stakes out the most liberal, yet still politically realistic, proposals (meaning it doesn’t call for a single payer system). Whether Senator Kennedy expects to get much of what’s laid out in the outline into legislation is unknown. At the very least, by providing an anchor on the left his plan will help him keep the final product from moving what he would consider too far to the middle.

3. As members of Congress begin drafting legislation they will be paying close attention to the impact health care reform will have on the federal budget. The analysts they will turn to for answers work in the Congressional Budget Office.  The CBO recently published guidelines explaining how they will evaluate the budget impact of various proposals in the Budgetary Treatment of Proposals to Change the Nation’s Health Insurance System. An added bonus: the director of the CBO, Douglas Elmendorf, posts frequently to the Congressional Budget Office Director’s Blog, providing additional insight into the agency’s thinking.

4. The Emanuel family has hit the trifecta. Their youngest son is a major Hollywood agent. The middle son is a former Congressman and currently the White House Chief of Staff. Their oldest son is a doctor. Not just any doctor. He is the Chair of the Deparment of Bioethics at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health (that must be one huge business card he’s got). But wait, there’s more. Earlier this year, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel was named a special adviser to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget for health policy. In other words, he’s pretty close to health care reform’s ground zero in the Obama White House.  (No slight intended of the Director of the White House Office on Health Reform, Nancy-Ann DeParle, who gets to sit on the actual bulls eye — see #5).  How Dr. Emanuel views reform, consequently, matters. He’s thought long and hard on the subject and, fortunately for inquiring minds, he’s written extensively on the topic, including the book Healthcare, Guaranteed: A Simple, Secure Solution for America. Other writings by Dr. Emanuel include a posting he made to The Huffington Post and another he co-wrote for the New America Foundation.

5. As noted in #4, Nancy-Ann Deparle’s is charged with coordinating President Obama’s health care reform efforts. It’s her job to keep the various players and issues in the debate from spinning out-of-control. Like a traffic cop, it’s up to her to keep things moving toward eventual passage of comprehensive legislation. It’s hard to find much on her personal health care reform positions (if anyone out there has links to her writings on the topic, please let me know).  In an April 2009 briefing for reporters sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Families USA and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, she did define what she means by a “public health plan.”  You can read a transcript or view a video of her presentation to the press on the Kaiser Family Foundation site

6. Everyone knows the key to health care reform is controlling medical costs. You can have all the market reforms Congress can dream up, but if medical inflation continues to outpace general inflation and wage growth at the rate it has been, it will cripple the economy. Even entrenched stakeholders recongize this reality, which is  how the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), American Hospital Association (AHA), American Medical Association (AMA) , the Pharaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) , and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) came to publish their medical cost reduction proposals. The document contains cost cutting committments the organizations have made to President Obama.

7. Perhaps the most talked about article on cost containment making the rounds today is a New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande. It is a terrific read that recounts his investigation into why McAllen, Texas is “the most expensive town in the most expensive country for health care in the world.”  It seems MediCare pays twice as much per person in McAllen than it does 800 miles away in El Paso. Dr. Gawande investigates why, offering insights into the health care system that are too rarely considered.

8. It is generally accepted that 30% of health care spending in the united states is unnecessary. That’s $700 billion we’re talking about that could be spent insuring the uninsured, among other uses. Folks like Peter Orszag, the former director of the CBO and currently director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (which makes him Dr. Emanuel’s boss, for those keeping track) often sites this statistic — and its source: Dartmouth University’s  “Atlas of Health Care.”  They have done numerous and extensive studies on the connection (or lack thereof) between medical spending and health outcomes. Their most recent findings, published February 27, 2009, are described in Health Care Spending, Quality, and Outcomes. It’s subtitle: “More Isn’t Always Better,” pretty well sums up the results.

9. A bonus item: For a 3 minute summary of the health care reform debate, presented in a surprisingly entertaining, clear, and balanced way, take a look at the video at myhealthreform.org.  The video is not an in-depth dive into the issue, but rather an informative overview of the topic. If you’ve got friends, clients or colleagues who are looking for a simple explanation of what the debate is all about, it’s a great place to start. (Full disclosure: the site is run by Humana who clearly has a stake in the outcome of health care reform).

There will be more required reading coming soon. For example, we should hear very soon from the  three House Committees with jurisdiction on health care reform with details on their proposals for change. In the meantime, if you come across any articles, books, postings or the like you think belongs on a list of required health care reform reading for 2009, please send them my way.

Making Health Care Cost Reduction Promises Real

Representatives from insurance companies, doctor groups, hospital organizations and the pharmaceutical industry had their moment in the presidential sun on May 11th promising to slow down how quickly medical care costs increase. Their promise: $2 trillion in savings over 10 years. That would not only make it more affordable to provide coverage for the uninsured, it would be a huge boost the economy and to the financial condition of state governments.

In a letter signed by, among others, the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Service Employees International Union, which, as the Los Angeles Times described it “shepherded the agreement.” The unprecedented agreement among these health care stakeholders is meaningful for two reasons. First, these organizations were among the leading opponents of the Clinton Administration’s failed health care reform effort in the 1990s. Second, if it’s real, we’re talking about serious money.

And there’s the rub: is it real? President Obama is trying to find out. He’s instructed the organizations to come back to White House with specifics on how it will make this pledge real. As the Administration has demonstrated with the business plans demanded of the auto industry, the White House will hold these interest groups to a high standard. Which it should. The political stakes are high. If the cost cutting plans lack credibility President Obama will look, as the Associated Press noted, he “will be seen as naive for entertaining such promises.”  By holding them to a high standard, however, President Obama also has the power to undercut the industries’ opposition to his health care reform plan. Accusing them of insincere promises and inadequate commitment to cost cutting would bolster those who seek a bigger role for government in any new health care system.

The stakeholders have an equally important political task. By coming forward with voluntary, credible proposals for cutting costs, they provide political cover for those opposing the expansion of the government’s involvement in the system. If their proposals pass muster they will have gone a long way toward morphing from being a target of reform to being a part of the solution.  Their specifics for cutting costs will be part of the health care reform legislation Congress will produce this summer, which means they’ll have to live with them. But if that means the forthcoming legislation is a bit friendlier to their interests, that’s a reasonable price to pay.

Fortunately, the target, while a stretch, is eminently doable. Researchers at Dartmouth University have done several studies over the years that demonstrate that high costs for medical care do not correlate with better outcomes. As the Associated Press reports, they found that “as much as 30 cents of the U.S. health care dollar could be going for tests and procedures of little or no value to patients.”

One person who paid attention to this finding is Peter Orszag, Director of the Office of Management and Budget. As I wrote in 2007, when he was Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Orszag was “pushing for more evidence based assessments of new technologies and the need to expand research on comparative effectiveness. They key, Mr. Orszag indicated, is to provide new incentives in the system aimed at changing provider and consumer behavior.” His goal: to eliminate the $600 billion in “wasteful or low-value services” currently in the system.

If health care reform is going to work, squeezing this $600 billion out of the system is crucial. The associations’ efforts are an important first step. According to the Associated Press article, the groups are focusing on different aspects of the problem. Insurers, for example, are looking at reducing administrative costs by, among other initiatives, establishing a common, shared on-line claim form doctors and patients could use. Doctors are looking at establishing guidelines for medical practice. Improving information on drug interactions and reducing hospital readmissions are also part of the mix.

Most experts agree that the savings are there to be found. Identifying the savings will require political will and a willingness to change “business as usual” in the medical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Whether they pass the test will be determined by President Obama. Having shared the stage with him to make the promise, the price of failure will be extremely high.

Ramming Health Care Reform Through the California Assembly

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez insists the full Assembly will vote on the compromise health care reform compromise he hammered out with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Never mind that members and others will have had little time to review the complicated legislation. The deal is the deal and Democratic members are expected to fall into line.

This doesn’t sit well with the California Labor Federation, the trade group representing the state’s unions. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Federation’s leader, Art Pulaski, is urging Assembly members to postpone the Monday vote. Apparently, the unions would like a chance to actually read the legislation and understand it before taking a position on it.

In a letter obtained by the Times Mr. Pulaski sent to Assembly members he writes, “We feel cheated of the opportunity to take a position on a bill that will impact the lives of every working family in California.” Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Speaker Nunez, says the Labor Federation has been involved in drafting the bill “from Day One until the last meeting.”

What Mr. Maviglio doesn’t say is that that there’s a lot that goes on between the handshake at the table and the drafting of the specific language. And the language was released only on Friday.  So is the Speaker’s office chiding Labor’s leadership for being slow readers?

Meanwhile, the new leadership at the Service employees International Union, which represents healthcare workers, among others, has endorsed the bill (presumably they’re speed readers). You may recall that on December 4th the SEIU leadership council replaced its president. The former president was skeptical of the compromise being negotiated by the Governor and the Speaker. The new president is more supportive.

The Health Access web site has a couple of posts that attempt to summarize the bill. I’m sure there are others out there, too. There’s so many interlocking pieces it can be tough to catch everything. Further complicating things is that the funding initiative isn’t available for review yet.

So, on Monday afternoon the California Assembly will vote on is a framework for health care reform which was released on Friday. They will not vote on how to finance the package. Assuming it passes the next test will be in the Senate. As noted in my last point, this puts health care reform in the hands of Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. He’s on record as claiming the legislature should deal with the state’s budget deficit before enacting the bill. But that was Thursday. A that was then. And Speaker Nunez and Governor Schwarzenegger are in a hurry.