Strengthening protections for health care consumers a priority.
When a hospital patient goes into cardiac arrest, a Code Blue is called, triggering an all-hands-on-deck emergency response. Physicians, nurses and other caregivers come running with a crash cart loaded with lifesaving drugs and equipment.
Health care reform now hovers in the gray area between life and death in the wake of Republican Scott Brown's Massachusetts Senate victory, which cost Democrats their filibuster-proof supermajority. But shamefully, there's been no political equivalent of Code Blue responders running in to jolt the patient back to life.
After a year of urgent deadlines and a Christmas Eve vote in the Senate, even congressional representatives in safe seats are taking out their 10-foot poles when it comes to the topic. President Obama essentially phoned in his prescription, offering vague goals in his State of the Union speech instead of a specific plan for how to resuscitate the health care overhaul.
He's also repeating a critical mistake: his original outsourcing of reform to Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said she'll announce a post-Brown reform strategy before Congress' mid-month recess, continues to play point guard. It's Obama himself who needs to quickly and forcefully lay out a detailed game plan.
Kathleen Sebelius, the likable former Kansas governor who is Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services, also needs a higher profile. And is there a stronger, more public advisory role for elder statesmen such as Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and Minnesota's own David Durenberger? All former senators, they're also respected health policy experts. Getting them more involved would signal that the White House is serious about bipartisanship and passing reform.
Rebranding health reform should be the major push in the months ahead. Those driving the 2009 proposals had good intentions. They focused on the estimated 15 percent of the U.S. population without health insurance. But to win back broad support, policymakers must focus on making it work better for the 85 percent of people with health insurance. These doable incremental steps should be top priorities:
• Strengthen consumer protections. Insurers shouldn't be able to drop or water down coverage for those who become seriously ill. Those with preexisting conditions need more leverage in dealing with insurers and help finding affordable coverage. An increasingly mobile workforce needs portable coverage. And families in this economy should be able to carry young adults on their plans until age 26.
• Keep premiums affordable. Exchanges that allow consumers to comparison shop for coverage could be the real game-changer in health care reform. Tort reform and pilot payment reform programs should also go forward.
• Shore up Medicare. The popular program depended on by millions of seniors is going bust. Setting up an independent, bipartisan advisory commission to find ways to slow costs and strengthen the program's bottom line is a vital first step.
• Give states flexibility. Minnesota is pushing forward with innovative programs to expand access, improve quality and control costs. Other states are interested in working with it. Sebelius needs to ensure federal policies allow them to pioneer solutions. The Upper Midwest -- long a leader in quality, efficient care -- shouldn't be held back because of inertia and fear at the national level.
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