If President Obama finds a magic lantern in the White House attic, his first request of the genie within is easy: Revive the national economy. But the next two wishes in many ways would sustain prosperity for years to come: Fix our health care system and make the nation energy-independent.
It’s worth reflecting on the enormous scale of the latter two problems and how resolving them would substantially alter economic life as we know it for the better.
Even before he takes office, the president-in-waiting is focusing on health care. The Obama transition team hosted a forum on the subject Tuesday at the Augusta Civic Center.
According to the National Coalition on Health Care, total spending on health care in the U.S. was $2.4 trillion in 2007, or $7,900 per person. That represents 17 percent of the gross domestic product. Spending is expected to grow over the next 10 years reaching $4.3 trillion in 2017, or 20 percent of GDP. Germany devotes 10.7 percent of its GDP to health care, Canada 9.7 percent and France 9.5 percent; each provides health care to all citizens.
In 2008, according to the NCHC, employer health insurance premiums increased by 5 percent, double the rate of inflation. “The annual premium for an employer health plan covering a family of four averaged nearly $12,700. The annual premium for single coverage averaged over $4,700,” according to the group’s Web site. And since 1999, “employment-based health insurance premiums have increased 120 percent,” compared to 44 percent cumulative inflation and 29 percent cumulative wage growth during the period.
And that’s why conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree that the system needs reforming. It is a colossal waste to allow that much money to bleed away from the economy. And imagine the adrenaline rush businesses would enjoy if they no longer had to shoulder the burden of paying so much for health care.
Part of the problem, identified at the Augusta event, is the sheer number of components in the system. Each player seeks to build in profit or revenue cushions, creating staggering inefficiencies.
The players include pharmaceutical companies; hospitals; physicians, nurses and other practitioners; private health insurance and malpractice insurance firms; attorneys; government-run payers such as Medicaid and Medicare; businesses that sell medical hardware and run for-profit labs; and on and on. Toss in the interests of unions in preserving traditionally structured health insurance benefits, the sedentary nature of modern life, the lack of will to exercise and eat well, and the 76 million baby boomers sliding into old age, and it’s easy to see that we have one doozy of a problem.
Though much more modest in scope, Tuesday’s “listening” event was reminiscent of then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s visit to the University of Maine Alfond Arena in 1994 to solicit public comment on the Clinton health care reform initiative. The difference — and it is a key difference — is that this time, the president is listening before launching a reform proposal. He will need to build a much broader consensus to win approval of the big changes that are needed. But a lot has changed since 1994; even laissez-faire free-market Republicans agree a fix is needed. Now is the time to do it.