Their View: It’s not soup yet

A sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system cannot be considered much of a success if it still leaves millions of Americans without health insurance.

So while the approval of a reform measure by the key Senate Finance Committee was a turning point, the work of congressional lawmakers and the White House is far from finished.

As President Obama said after the vote Tuesday, this is “not the time to pat ourselves on the back.”

Without question, the plan crafted by the committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., represents a major step.

The Baucus bill would impose needed reforms to prevent insurers from refusing or dropping coverage. It would require most people to obtain health insurance, or pay a penalty. And it would provide billions in subsidies so that low-income citizens and legal residents can purchase coverage.

But the Senate’s middle-of-the-road approach would fall short by leaving 25 million people without insurance. The key reason: While respecting Obama’s reasonable plea for a deficit-neutral plan, Baucus simply doesn’t do enough to drive down the cost of care.

Watchdogs at the Congressional Budget Office cannot say whether the measure would “bend the cost curve,” most likely because it won’t do so.

In part, the Baucus bill falters because it tracks other congressional proposals that indulge the health care industry and labor lobbyists who have beaten a well-funded path from their K Street offices to Capitol Hill.

These interest groups have succeeded in minimizing the discomfort to various stakeholders – hospitals, drug makers, employers, and unionized employees – with generous workplace coverage. Proposals to squeeze savings or require that employers provide coverage have been watered down, leaving less money to devote to covering the uninsured.

At the same time, the mandate that all Americans purchase health insurance has been weakened. With a yearly penalty of only $750 a year, the Baucus measure would enable millions of young, healthy adults to delay buying insurance with confidence that they could get it if they got sick. That means the insurance pool would be smaller, and more expensive, for everyone else.

Against that backdrop, it’s glaringly obvious that the Baucus bill’s chief shortcoming is that it doesn’t provide for a Medicare-style government health plan to compete with private insurers.

No other single initiative would tamp down costs as much, while also assuring that all the uninsured obtain coverage.

In the same way that government health programs have succeeded in insuring 23 million children, and that seniors no longer fear health insecurity in retirement, Congress must face up to the need for a health care safety net for working-age Americans.

The above editorial was originally published Oct. 15 in the Philadelphia Enquirer. Content was made available by MCTCampus.