Archive for June, 2009

Beyond the Beltway – How Most of America Sees Health Reform

June 17, 2009

What are people saying about health reform beyond the beltway and outside the health wonk debates?  I’ve been meeting with Rotary Clubs and local Chambers of Commerce during the last several months, and they’re talking about different issues than the ones being debated in Washington, DC.  When I talk with these groups about the prospects for national health reform, what are the top three questions they ask?
•    Is this going to lead to a single-payer system with rationing, just like they have in Canada?
•    Why isn’t the malpractice problem being addressed?
•    Will this include illegal immigrants?

These are not the top issues being debated on Capitol Hill.  If you just read Politico.com, the Washington Post, and the pundits’ blogs, you would think that the big issues are the public plan option, the employer mandate, and the cap on the tax exclusion of employer-paid benefits.  There are important, but they aren’t the issues that most small employers and consumers are worried about.

Let’s take each of these in turn.
•    The concern about rationing under a Canadian-style single-payer system shows that the messages from right-wing opponents of health reform are finding a receptive ear, at least among some people.  I heard this issue expressed at every meeting I attended – often using the exact language the Frank Luntz has recommended.  In response, I try to explain that the most likely reform legislation would preserve the multi-payer private employer-based system for most people, and it would rely on healthy competition rather than government price-setting and rationing to slow the growth in health care costs.  My response usually falls on deaf ears; many people are convinced that Obama and Kennedy are secretly pushing for a government-run plan.  It will take a lot of work to overcome the fear factor that is being stirred up by opponents of health reform.
•    Many people – especially those with family members who are doctors – are convinced that the malpractice problem is the single biggest driver of high costs.  In the words of one person at a meeting I attended recently, “The malpractice lawyers are raping the doctors”.   I respond by acknowledging that malpractice insurance and the use of defensive medicine do drive up costs, but these are relatively minor factors; the way physicians are paid has a much larger impact on driving unnecessary use of tests and medical care.  But there is a real issue here: why hasn’t malpractice reform been seen as an essential building block of reform?  The likely answer is political:  the trial lawyers have traditionally provided financial support to Democrats, while doctors have usually supported Republicans.  Since most of the current bills are being written by Democrats, it’s not surprising that they don’t focus on liability reform. Pres. Obama’s recent comments to the AMA provided a glimmer of hope that the issue will be addressed.  If there is any interest in building bi-partisan support for comprehensive health reform, this ought to be on the table.
•    The fear of illegal immigrants is a hot button issue for many people.  In the current economy – with many people losing their jobs, and many more worried sick about the danger of unemployment – it’s sad but not surprising that some people would see immigrants as a threat.  So far, the President and Congressional leaders have been successful in keeping this issue from getting out of hand, but Senators and Representatives will get an earful when they spend time in their districts during the July 4 and August recesses.  Unless we find a way to manage this issue, it could become a flash point in the final phases of debate on a comprehensive reform bill.