The Senate and House are preparing to reconcile two modestly different approaches to health care reform. Charges and counter charges continue to swirl around like New Year’s Eve confetti. Are we on the verge of an historic breakthrough on health care reform?
What lessons have we learned about ourselves and our government? Let me suggest six.
1. America matters more to some than Americans.
The target of health care reform is Americans who are in the margins of our workforce. They earn too much money to qualify for health care programs for the poor – state Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs (CHIP). They work for small businesses who cannot or do not provide health insurance coverage.
As a society we have already agreed to provide health care to the poor, the old and those who work full time for profitable companies. Why is it so difficult to fill the remaining cracks in the system?
Yet opponents of reform frame their arguments as a classic American struggle against big government. The stories of very real Americans facing death by neglect or medical bankruptcy don’t seem to resonate as much as the conjured images of America challenged by fictional tyrannical death panels and giant government databases.
2. I got mine – go get your own.
Very few people with health insurance pay anywhere close to the full cost of health insurance. Less than 10% of adults under 65 obtain their health insurance in the individual market where they have to pay the full price. 73% of those who tried to buy individual insurance gave up either because it was not available to them or it was too expensive, according to a study by the Commonwealth Fund. For the rest of us, our employer pays the majority share, or the government for those on Medicare and those on Medicaid.
Yet extending the same helping hand to those who may need health insurance to continue to participate in the workforce is tantamount to terrorism or tyranny, according to certain news commentators. That may be an extreme view, but the noise it generates is dead weight that drags the center of political discourse away from constructive and meaningful reform.
3. Money talks
Despite the clamor from the right, polls consistently show strong support for health care reform and even for the “controversial” public option. Recently, I described how opinion pools show strong support for a single payer system.
So why are Democratic politicians having such a hard time getting “on board” with health care reform. Countless stories have documented the amount of money the health care industry has spent on lobbying members of Congress. One is reminded of my home town’s favorite son, Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, who once said, “An honest politician is one who when bought, stays bought.” Only when some politicians began to realize that actual voters are behind those poll numbers did the public option begin to show renewed life.
Sadly, the Senate result reinforces the impression that money talks.
4. Symbols matter
There is not a whole lot of evidence that the public option by itself will make a meaningful dent in the number of uninsured or in medical cost inflation. But it is a powerful symbol reflecting one’s viewpoint about who should be the intermediary between the patient and the health care system – a government or quasi-governmental organization, or a private health insurance company. There is clearly little appetite or political will to take on the insurance companies directly with the kind of strong and consistent regulation found in other countries. The best that Democrats can offer is the threat of weak-kneed competition.
5. Why do simple when complex is so – complex?
There is much ado about the nearly 2,000 pages of the health care bill. When Congress tries to fix 1/6 of the American economy, it can’t be easy. An analogy can be made to taking your tired old clunker to the repair shop. It is too expensive. It can’t haul nearly as many people as it was supposed to. But you love it to death. Your favorite repairman could hand you a ten-page estimate and tell you it will still be expensive and still won’t carry the all the passengers you would like. Or he could hand you a one-page invoice for a new car. HR 676, the “Medicare for All” legislation and beloved of single payer advocates, is 27 pages long.
6. Who does Congress love most? Not you and me.
Do you doubt the devotion of Congress to the insurance industry? If so, the provision in both the House and Senate proposals to require an 85% medical loss ratio should say it all. The law requires that at least 85% of premium income be used to pay for medical claims of covered participants. Even the most conservative estimates put Medicare’s loss ration in excess of 90%, some argue in excess of 95%. If the government can spend premium income more efficiently why let the private insurers in?
It’s no longer a safe bet that health insurance legislation will succeed (It does not deserve to be called health care legislation). It is criticized from the right and from the left.
As feeble as it is, it will be a significant achievement given the long record of historical (and hysterical) opposition. Calling it reform will be the challenge of the spin-doctors. Already there are estimates that it will leave a significant number of people still uninsured. It doesn’t do enough to manage costs. And there will undoubtedly be a backlash for a variety of reasons, some of them legitimate. The question will be, how soon before Congress will have to revisit this issue?
Photo by JL McGee