Thursday, February 25, 2010

It's Now or Never for Health Reform

The Health Care Summit 2/26/10

Now That Health Myths are Busted,
It's Now or Never for Reform

By John F. Wasik

Remember that old Elvis song "It's now or never," a cheesy version of "O Sole Mio?" That should be the Democrats' theme song after the Feb. 25 health-care summit.
Top Democrats made their case for the umpteenth time. The Republicans somewhat agreed with them on the need for expanding markets across state lines and consumer protection, but differed in the way to approach reform.
I watched most of the proceedings, which was neither a debate nor deal making. If both parties eventually decide to do something together, this forum will have laid the groundwork for a compromise.
One thing was crystal clear: Republican leaders wanted to tear up both the House and Senate versions and start over, a move that would surely wreck any progress and set legislation back years. It makes no sense since the basic principles of why reform is needed are in place on both sides.
"The nature of the industry is terrible," noted Senator Jay Rockefeller, who was disappointed there was no public option on the table. "Insurers are looking for reasons to kick you out -- 44 of 50 states deny coverage for pre-existing conditions."
How bad are industry abuses? Insurers can deny coverage, clip benefits and raise rates for any reason. In one state, even being a victim of domestic violence is considered a pre-existing condition.
As long as claims are viewed by the industry as "losses," patients and insurers will have an adversarial relationship. This is immoral. Health care should be a human right that we recognize and protect. No profit should be made on human suffering.
The situation is getting worse by the day, so Democrats need to act quickly before they get sucked into the maw of election-year politics. Some 6 people daily are dying due to lack of insurance. About 14,000 lose their insurance every 24 hours. Nothing in the private sector is going to help these folks. Only if you are desperately poor, a veteran or old will you get any help. The indigent now get better care than working, middle-class Americans who don't have employers offering health care.
At the very least, President Obama and his Democratic colleagues did a good job at myth busting and established a clear path forward:
• There are no free-market solutions in the Democrats' plans. In lieu of a public option that would offer competition, creating insurance exchanges across state lines would create a true national market -- if companies are regulated closely. Democrats and Republicans both agree on this.
• No government entity will take over health care. The feds won't run clinics, scrutinize treatments, deny coverage or run hospitals. The private sector remains in place. Ironically, though, more people get their health care from government agencies now than from for-profit companies.
• Simply offering better health-savings accounts "to create better health consumers" (as the GOP suggests) is dead on arrival. It does nothing to reduce costs and individuals have no bargaining power. This scheme works best for the wealthy as supplemental savings vehicles.
• Creating more "high-risk pools" for the sickest and most vulnerable is also a bad idea. In states where these "insurance ghettos" are offered, the costs are sky-high and the most chronically ill are segregated. You need a broad, national pool to spread out the costs.
• Reining in medical malpractice claims is worth studying, but it's largely a red herring. As Senator Dick Durbin pointed out, one-fifth of 1% of total health care costs involve malpractice costs. That's a drop in the bucket when Medicare itself is expected to be insolvent in just 8 years.
• Health reform costs too much. It will be too costly to do nothing. Medical bills are the reason for 62% of bankruptcies, according to the American Journal of Medicine. Even if a new entitlement program is created, if it's not set up to reduce costs and cover more people, our global competitiveness will continue to decline and more of the federal budget will be spent on health care.

Even if Democrats have to push reform through a reconciliation measure with 51 votes, they should do it. Inaction will cost them much more at the polls in November. It's now or never. People are dying over this.

John F. Wasik is the author of The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream (

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