Reform Goes Ahead

Posted Dec. 21, 2009, at 6:39 p.m.

The health care overhaul bill that passed a critical first vote in the Senate Monday morning is far from perfect, but given the deplorable state of politics in Washington, it is likely the best chance lawmakers have to begin the reform process.

Sen. Olympia Snowe is right that the bill is being rushed through and that more time could improve it. However, most of her Republican colleagues don’t share her commitment to continue searching for a compromise, which leaves Democrats and their leadership little choice but to move ahead on their own, which they did early Monday. All the Senate’s Democrats and the two independents voted to move the bill forward; all the Republicans voted against doing so. Two more Senate votes are needed to approve the legislation and begin merging it with a House-passed version, a process that should be used to strengthen the bill.

Sen. Snowe said she was ready to “spend the time necessary to get this right” in early January after the Christmas recess.

“I remain convinced we must work toward a responsible, common sense solution to reverse the trend of spiraling health care costs — that will cause one in four Americans this year to have either inadequate coverage or none at all, and threatens affordable coverage for millions more Americans in the future,” she said Sunday, about 12 hours before the first Senate vote. “I couldn’t agree more that reform is imperative, and I will continue my constructive effort to forge an effective, common sense health care reform.”

She is to be applauded for her commitment to lowering costs for average Americans and for wanting a bill that is affordable to the U.S. Treasury — goals shared by Sen. Susan Collins — and for working toward this goal for much of the year.

Sadly, most of her GOP colleagues want more time to drum up opposition to the bill, not to make it better. “What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote tonight. That’s what they ought to pray,” Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, said before the vote, exemplifying the party’s hostility to health care reform this year.

Dragging the debate into 2010 — an election year — will change the dynamics as the focus shifts from improving the health care system to racking up votes through often factually challenged sound bytes. Shouting about “death panels” and keeping government out of Medicare, a popular, but government-run health care program for seniors, made for good political theater this summer, but did nothing to ease the rapidly rising costs of insurance and medical care.

The current Senate bill would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and setting lifetime caps on benefits. Rather than a public option, it would have the federal personnel office, which now negotiates government insurance plans, administer plans that the public could buy into with subsidies for those who need them. An expansion of Medicaid would expand coverage to more than 30 million Americans without health insurance.

These are important steps in the right direction. Many more steps will be needed in coming years, but setting the right course is more important than scoring political points.

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