Editorial: Prudent slowdown on health reform

  • Updated: August 1, 2009 - 11:35 PM

But lawmakers still need to push forward on health care.

There was both frustration and humor in one Minnesota hospital official's comment this week after watching the health care reform debate grow ever more rancorous in Washington, D.C. With calls for bipartisanship looking like wishful thinking and divisions growing among Democrats over cost containment, the official said with a tired laugh, "Sometimes I wonder if we have to get to a point where no one can afford health insurance before the politicians can actually agree to do something.''

Yes, it's been a long and exasperating summer when it comes to health care reform. When the weather first warmed, there was widespread agreement that it was time to act. But it's one thing to speak in broad terms about reform and another to figure out how to do it. It should surprise no one that things are bogged down and that President Obama's overly ambitious timetable has been pushed back. September looks like the soonest a floor vote would happen on any bill. That's not a bad thing.

Lawmakers need to err on the side of moving carefully, not speedily. Overhauling our $2.4 trillion health care system is one of the most complex challenges the nation has ever tackled, in some ways even more difficult than the 1960s moonshot push. This is a complex, fragmented public/private system with wealthy entrenched interests, decades-old industry practices and more than 307 million stakeholders -- the current U.S. population. It's important to get it right.

But it's also important to get it done. Soaring health care costs are an economic threat, stifling job growth and jeopardizing America's global competitiveness. The point about no one being able to afford health insurance should give everyone pause. The current health care system is in a death spiral. Providers have long shifted the uncovered costs of care for the uninsured or those in government entitlement programs to privately insured consumers. Health care's soaring costs mean fewer people can afford these policies, and those remaining pay ever-higher premiums. According to the respected Kaiser Family Foundation, the average monthly premium that employees pay toward company-provided health coverage has soared 120 percent since 1999. Their average out-of-pocket expenses -- deductibles, copayments -- increased 115 percent during the same time. The nation shouldn't wait until everyone is priced out of the system.

Minnesota lawmakers have been at the center of the health care debate and must continue advocating for cost containment and common-sense reforms when Congress returns from its late-summer break. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and her fellow Democrats in the U.S. House, Tim Walz and Keith Ellison, have introduced badly needed legislation to overhaul Medicare's perverse payment system, which rewards volume not value. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, has also proposed a first step to address "geographic disparities,'' Medicare's practice of paying providers in some areas far more than it pays those in Minnesota; much more needs to be done.

In the weeks ahead, other potential solutions deserve an airing. A recent call for an Independent Medicare Advisory Council -- which would tackle politically unpalatable measures to control this program's costs -- is worthy of debate. A regional approach to cutting Medicare costs -- a solution that would put pressure on high-cost areas, but spare the lower-cost Upper Midwest-- should also get a closer look.

This summer's messy but historic debate has accomplished much. It's put a badly needed spotlight on the health care crisis and launched a long-overdue evaluation of solutions. It's not time to turn back, as some shortsightedly suggest; it's time to push forward and seize this opportunity for meaningful change. Doing nothing is the riskiest strategy of all.

  • Time to act "This has to get fixed. (Health care costs) are dragging down family incomes, household incomes. It's dragging down quality and the American economy.'' Amy Klobuchar
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