Health Care Progress

Posted Feb. 23, 2010, at 4:54 p.m.

America’s health care system clearly needs remaking. However, introducing essentially the same plan that has stalled in Congress, as President Barack Obama did Monday, won’t do much to move this needed work forward. The president says his plan is meant as a starting point for a conversation with Republican lawmakers on health reform scheduled for Thursday.

The problem is that the conversation over much of what the president proposed — including an expansion of Medicaid, a tax on the most expensive plans and a system of state health exchanges — has been had. It reached a stalemate when Republican Scott Brown was elected to the Senate last month, erasing the Democrat’s 60-seat, filibusterproof majority.

Democrats still have a strong majority in the Senate so they shouldn’t simply roll over and let health care reform wither, as has happened with past efforts. Nor should they, however, simply push through flawed legislation.

At the same time, Republicans can’t simply say “no” to reform for perceived political gain without bringing new ideas to the table. These ideas must go beyond the party’s boilerplate call for tort reform and allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, both of which might be good ideas but aren’t likely to make a big difference in actual health care costs.

There is a lot both parties can agree to, such as insurance market reforms including prohibiting insurance companies from refusing coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and denying claims from those who are sick or injured. Beyond this, Bangor Daily News columnist and physician Erik Steele offered his own list of good ideas this week. They include: ensuring everyone has a primary care provider who decides what type of care is — and is not — necessary; making health care providers and hospitals operate within a specific budget as a way to manage costs; and a national system for evaluating the benefits and cost effectiveness of medical tests and treatments.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but shows areas where it should be easy to reach agreement without requiring a lot of government intervention. As an added benefit, none of these suggestions would cost much, an important consideration at a time when concerns about the federal deficit are heightened.

“I believe members of Congress and the administration are beginning to get the message sent by Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts, and they’re hearing from their constituents that the American people want solutions and are tired of partisan gridlock and bitter rhetoric,” Sen. Susan Collins said recently. “That partisan gridlock and bitter rhetoric tend to conceal there are many significant reforms both parties agree upon.”

Breaking the partisan gridlock to build on those areas of agreement will require moderate senators, such as Sens. Collins and Olympia Snowe, the only Republican to vote for an overhaul bill in the Senate Finance Committee, to work with their colleagues to craft passable legislation.

Maine’s senators have clearly articulated why reform is necessary and both have offered good ideas for what the reforms should look like. Now comes the difficult task of turning them into reality.

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