Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Smaller Bipartisan Health Bill? What It Could Look Like

In the wake of the Massachusetts vote, Democrats are scrambling to find a way out of the health care political mess they are in.

Right now they are in a daze standing by waiting to see if any of the "trial balloons" they have launched gain any traction. So far, ideas to ram though the now toxic Senate bill in the House in one parliamentary form or another are falling flat.

Last night, the President formally launched one of his own trial balloons--doing some kind of a scaled back bipartisan bill.

The problem with bipartisanship now is that the Republican base is not about to let any of their own Senators do anything to take the Dems off the political meat hook they are now dangling from.

Democrats could well try to create a very popular stripped down health bill with a win-win objective--if it passes they are off the hook and have something to take to the November elections and if Republicans block it they have themselves an issue on which they can try to neutralize the Republicans.

But that sounds great in principle--health care details are always problematic.

What follows is a post that I did the day after Barack Obama was elected President. In it I suggested a modest bipartisan bill was the only thing I could see passing in 2009--or 2010 for that matter.

You will note that suggestion #1 has already been accomplished--as well as some positive health IT steps.

From Wednesday, November 5, 2008:

There is Now a Real Bipartisan Opportunity in Health Care

President-Elect Obama, and about every candidate for Congress, has said he wants to change the partisan tone in Washington. Obama, the Democratic Congressional leadership, and the Republicans have a terrific opportunity to do just that on health care when they all come to Washington early next year.

As I posted earlier, I do not believe there is any chance we can see the enactment of the comprehensive Obama health plan in the near term.

But there are a number of important steps that can be taken next year and each of them have enjoyed strong bipartisan support during the past year:
  1. Reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP) and increasing the number of kids covered from six million to ten million. The Congress passed exactly that kind of reauthorization twice by strong bipartisan margins only to come a few votes short of being able to override two Bush vetoes of the bill. Those attempts met pay-as-you-go requirements by boosting the cigarette tax to pay for it.
  2. Rearranging Medicare spending by equalizing the payments private Medicare plans get with the payments the traditional Medicare plan receives for the same seniors. The Medicare physicians face a 21% fee cut on January 1, 2010 and there are other serious cost issues for Medicare. In July, the Congress took the first step toward payment equalization with a veto proof margin of 70-26 in the Senate and 383-41 in the House. The really hard part here is crafting a new Medicare physician payment system that is desperately needed but the first step, where to get the money, has strong bipartisan support.
  3. John McCain and Barack Obama had a number of similar and relatively non-controversial cost containment ideas in their health plans which would cost the federal government little or nothing. These similar proposals included the expansion of health information technology and a patient medical record; improving transparency about health care quality and costs including prices, errors, staffing ratios, infection rates, and disparities in care and costs; wellness initiatives including an emphasis on healthy lifestyles; development of best practice standards, requirements for disease management programs; requiring effectiveness reviews for procedures, devices, and drugs; and requiring providers to collect and report data to ensure standards for health quality are followed.
  4. There is bipartisan support for assisting small business in providing and paying for health insurance. In 1999, 56% of employers with 3-9 workers provided health insurance to their workers. By 2007, that had dropped to 45%. By contrast, employers with more than 200 workers provide health insurance 99% of the time. The one place employer-provided health insurance is melting away is in the small employer area. A modest bill to assist the small employer enjoys support among both Republicans and Democrats.
A big $100 billion [per year] comprehensive health care reform plan like the Obama health plan is not realistic in these times of financial crisis.

But, there is already bipartisan support for a children's health insurance (SCHIP) extension and the means to pay for it, reform of Medicare provider payments and the means to pay for that, a list of commonly agreed to cost containment initiatives that would cost the government little or nothing, and bipartisan support for help to the small employer to offer health insurance.

To be sure these steps would only make a dent in the number of those uninsured and these bipartisan cost containment items will only help our cost problem around the edges.

But all of these bipartisan steps would be progress, are doable, and are affordable.

President-Elect Obama and the Democratic leadership can do what the last two Presidents did--promise bipartisanship and then quickly employ the same old partisanship out of the mistaken belief they had the majorities in Congress that would enable them to steamroll the opposition. That mistake led to the 1994 Republican takeover of the Congress in the first case and two straight election defeats, in 2006 and 2008, in the second.

President-Elect Obama, the Democratic leadership, and the Republicans have the road map at hand to truly show a bipartisan commitment to health care change and progress. They could actually break the gridlock on health care and make some modest progress.

Will they take the road less traveled or just give us more of the same?
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