Editorial: No turning back on health reform

  • Updated: January 20, 2010 - 6:58 PM

Senate election a signal to correct course, not abandon effort.

The decision by Massachusetts voters to send Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate radically altered the political landscape for health care reform. But it didn't change what should be the fundamental question: What's the right thing to do?

Despite the topic's complexity, the answer remains straightforward. It is unacceptable to abandon 47 million uninsured Americans to a threadbare patchwork of charity care and public programs. It is unacceptable to have millions more in the middle class priced out of coverage every year. It is unacceptable to let the Medicare program for seniors careen toward insolvency.

The costly, wasteful U.S. health care system is an embarrassment. The right thing to do -- the moral imperative -- is to fix it.

With passage of health reform bills through the House and Senate last fall, the nation at long last was courageously tackling the health care mess -- a historic moment rightly compared to passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Now it's on the verge of a cut-and-run that could set the nation on a catastrophic course.

Brown's win means U.S. Senate Democrats have lost the supermajority required to overcome filibusters, putting Republicans in position to kill the health care legislation the country so desperately needs. Although Democrats vow to push forward and have some limited options, reform's chances are bleak.

That's a terrible development for many Americans who will need medical care at some point in the next few decades. Forget the deceitful hype about death panels from last summer. The really scary information about health care is found in dry policy reports from respected organizations such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Commonwealth Fund.

Medicare running out of money before the end of this decade. Family premiums topping $26,000 a year by 2020 -- who will be able to afford that? Hospitals cutting services or closing their doors because they're overwhelmed by people seeking charity care or those who can't pay their bills. That's what the future holds if nothing is done.

The status quo is the riskiest health care strategy of all. Sadly, that critical point is lost in the increasingly ugly and partisan debate. Both political parties share the blame. Republicans have put gamesmanship ahead of health care solutions. Their priority: derailing the domestic agenda of President Obama.

But the Obama administration and congressional leadership have bungled this, too. The White House cut back-room deals with special interests and handed off too much responsibility to Congress. The White House's health team -- led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- has been weak and ineffective. The team is also incomplete. No one yet has been appointed to lead the influential Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Above all the president, whose campaign connected brilliantly with voters, failed to convince these same people that their personal economic well-being is at stake. Health reform legislation is imperfect, but key measures in it would dramatically improve the lives of many Americans. Health insurers wouldn't be able to deny coverage because of preexisting conditions. Families would be able to keep young adults on their plans until age 26. Seniors' drug bills would start to diminish. Competition through health insurance exchanges would drive down coverage costs.

All this could be lost because one previously obscure legislator from Massachusetts gets to go to Washington, and add to the gridlock.

Obama must take back the reins and be loud and clear in challenging Democrats and Republicans not to abandon a pressing national need. There's still a chance to seize the moment, resuscitate meaningful reform and somehow get it passed.

  • DURENBERGER'S VIEW

    "If the bill goes down, the learning curve stays high. Democrats weathered the storm of town hall meetings, incessant diatribes from right wing radio/TV, Catholic bishops, and political entrepeneurs like Lieberman-Nelson-Landrieu-Stupak. People like Klobuchar and Walz have become champions of health reform ... [for] when the next opportunity arises. Despite history, there's no such thing as 'If not now, never.' "

    Former Minnesota Republican Sen. David Durenberger

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