Health Care Reform Passage is Historic, But Only the Beginning

Health care reform was passed by Congress today. It’s as simple as that. And as complicated. The legislation will do far less than either its proponents or opponents claim. But the legislation will change the insurance industry. It will begin to address some of the drivers of skyrocketing medical costs. It will aggregate more power and influence in government while it is far from a government takeover.

The political impact of health care reform legislation will have far reaching political ramifications for years to come. The Senate health care reform package and the associated clean-up legislation were passed exclusively with Democratic votes. Which means if, over time, the program is deemed by voters as successful the electoral benefits of the program will accrue almost exclusively to Democrats. And if the program is rejected by voters it will be Democrats who are punished.

The vote in the House of Representatives – 219-to-212 to pass the Senate health care reform bill and 220-to-211 in favor of the clean-up legislation – is historic by any definition of the term. Many Presidents of both parties had tried to pass health care reform. Many Congresses had considered such legislation. To President Barack Obama and the 111th United States Congress goes the credit (or blame) for actually taking action.

Their bill is more moderate than some that had been proposed (the proposals of both Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were in many ways more far reaching) and far more liberal than others. Yet the politics, policy and process has polarized the nation in ways few issues have before. (I find it ironic that many of those marching against today’s health care reform today were doing much the same against the Viet Nam War in the 60s and early 70s – or condemning those who did).

The House vote today means that, once signed, the Senate health care reform bill, HR 3590, becomes the law of the land. However, virtually no one in Congress or the Administration likes that bill as written. Consequently, the House passed a companion bill, HR 4872, that makes several significant changes to the HR 3590. Most significantly, the companion bill can be considered by the Senate under established parliamentary rules that bypass the filibuster process. This means the clean-up bill can be passed by a simple majority of the Senate – 51 votes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has assured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi he has rounded up the necessary votes. However, success is neither automatic nor guaranteed. Republicans have the ability to delay passage of the clean-up legislation and might be able to have key elements of it removed.

This means there will be two signing ceremonies concerning health care reform: in the first President Obama will sign into law the Senate health care reform bill that no one likes. In the second, President Obama will sign into law a measure that virtually everyone agrees makes the first bill better. American politics being what it is today, however, we will first witness the spectacle of Republicans trying to defeat legislation that contains provisions they would likely admit improve the law that they failed to defeat today. No wonder Alice in Wonderland is the most popular movie in the land today. The body politic has fallen through the looking glass.

As a result of tonight’s action, Congress has addressed the easiest part of health care reform: changing how insurance companies act and are regulated. These “market reforms” are meaningful. Some, although not all, were necessary. But in a real sense the measures enacted represent low hanging fruit. Because the reality is that insurance companies don’t determine insurance premiums in a vacuum. Congress has taken on the easy villains in this drama: the greedy insurance companies. But everyone knows (and a few will admit) that health costs will continue to increase at an unacceptable rate. This means lawmakers will soon be forced to address the real driver of increasing health insurance premiums: medical costs that increase at twice the rate of general inflation. Doing so will be more difficult than beating up on insurance carriers, but eventually there’s no escaping the need to address root causes.

Then there’s the inevitable law suits. State legislators are already passing laws to exempt their citizens from elements of the health care reform package (specifically the requirement imposed on virtually all Americans to obtain health care coverage). And any legislation of this magnitude is a boon for lawyers in both the private and public sectors.

Should agents and brokers (the primary audience for this blog) consider passage of health care reform the death knell of their profession? No. Change will be required (something that has been required with some regularity every few years for the past three decades). But thanks to the efforts of the National Association of Health Underwriters and the hundreds of brokers who have engaged in the health care reform debate, change does not mean elimination for today’s professional brokers. And the reality is, even if Congress failed to pass health care reform brokers faced substantial changes to their profession in the next few years. The status quo was going to change by legislative fiat or as the result of internal stresses. At least now we have a better sense of what the new world will look like.

The health care reform bills passed by the House of Representatives today draw the outlines of this new world. It will be up to judges and regulators and future Congresses and state legislatures to fill in the details. As mentioned previously, neither the health care reform process or debate is over yet.

So yes, the House of Representatives made history tonight. And it’s only the beginning.