Magazine article The American Prospect

Doctoring Health Care, I: Democrats, Business, and Labor Look to 2008

Magazine article The American Prospect

Doctoring Health Care, I: Democrats, Business, and Labor Look to 2008

Article excerpt

FOR ALL THE HYPE OVER THE Democrats retaking Congress, you'd think the reemergence of that body's liberal lions would, in short order, bring about universal health care and a host of other panaceas. Winning universal health care, alas, remains unlikely, at least in the near term. Instead, repairing the cracked foundations of Medicare and Medicaid will dominate the health agenda, and if the Democrats have any energy left, they may try to stabilize the employer-based health system, too. But if the Democrats are smart, they'll go one step further, using their control of committees and their ability to set the agenda to lay the groundwork for a major universal health-care push in 2008--one that may boast a surprising array of new allies.

It's true that for the next two years the Democrats will be hamstrung in their legislative efforts by the threat of a presidential veto. So their first order of business will be a series of investigations and hearings showcasing how Republicans have undermined the stability of Medicare, rammed through a capricious and inadequate drug benefit, ignored soaring insurance costs and the number of uninsured, and further damaged the already precarious employer-based insurance system. But attaining significant improvements in these areas will take a wider Democratic majority in the Senate as well as a change in occupancy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. California Democrat Pete Stark, who returns as chairman of the important House Ways and Means health panel, says "We're going to have to do this slowly and we're going to have to reach out to build a bi-partisan coalition.... I don't want to spoil our chances for making bigger strides in 2008, when arguably we have a good chance to win the White House."

Even the much-touted promise, from incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to pass a measure in the first 100 legislative hours that would allow the government to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers will be largely symbolic, given Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt's emphatic statement that he doesn't want such authority. More useful would be a measure that more than 130 House Democrats, including Pelosi, co-sponsored last Congress offering seniors the option of enrolling in a government-run drug plan that would compete with private plans. Unleashing Medicare's cost and administrative efficiencies on prescription-drug purchasing would be good for seniors and for advocates of a strong Medicare program.

Meanwhile, even if such health-care legislation stalls, simply debating it would jump-start discussion over the future of Medicare, both as a government entitlement for seniors and as a program for covering the nearly 47 million people without health insurance. Debate on the uninsured will also be sparked by hearings on the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers about 8.5 million children and must be renewed this year. Many Democrats want to expand this program to more children as well as their families.

At the same time, five congressional committees are required by law to hold hearings in 2007 on options for insuring all Americans that were recently released by a nonpartisan panel that Congress created three years ago. The panel concluded that most Americans want a national, universal coverage system. And a surprising array of business leaders, labor union officials, consumer activists and healthcare industry executives may agree. "It is one of those times, it is like 1992 again," says Robert Galvin, who oversees the $3 billion General Electric spends on health care annually. Galvin is referring to the health-care crisis of the early 1990s, which led President Clinton to take a serious crack at comprehensive reform. "It is like it was 15 years ago, in terms of business interest in getting into the dialogue."

"Conditions are there to drive health care to the top of the agenda," John Rother, policy director for AARP, told a recent forum. …

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