Maine’s former Sen. George Mitchell, who led a recent conference in Portland, is one of many who are pressing for a bipartisan solution to the nation’s mounting health care crisis. The time for action should come under a new Congress and a new president.
The meeting was the third of four regional forums organized by Sen. Mitchell and three other former senate majority leaders (Republicans Howard Baker of Tennessee and Bob Dole of Kansas and Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota). The group plans to present a consensus proposal early next year.
A similar effort is headed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, with emphasis on the need for a universal health care system. While fighting an aggressive brain tumor, he has directed his aides to hold meetings to build bipartisan support for a major initiative.
Still another proposal in the works is a universal health care plan put forward by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Robert Bennett, R-Utah. Their Healthy Americans Act would replace the current employer-based system with government oversight and subsidies of private health care plans that individuals select. It would guarantee coverage as good as that which federal employees receive. Funding would come from a tax of from 3 percent to 26 percent on employers. The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation say that the plan could take full effect in 2014, would break even the first year and create budget surpluses in successive years.
A doctors’ organization, Physicians for a National Health Program, has been pressing for single-payer national health insurance. It points out that the United States now spends twice as much as other industrialized nations on health care, while Americans lag in life expectancy and infant mortality rates and 47 million lack health coverage. It argues that 31 percent of the nation’s health care cost now goes into the private insurance bureaucracy and paperwork and that a single-payer plan would save more than $350 billion a year.
These and other proposals may seem like a hodgepodge of competing ideas, but the time has come for agreement and creation of a new system that will serve efficiently the health needs of all Americans. It should be universal, ending the expensive resort to emergency rooms by the uninsured and underinsured. It should break the connection between health benefits and employment, which came about by accident in World War II, when benefits were a way to avoid government caps on pay raises. It should draw on the experience of other countries.
Sen. Mitchell wisely acknowledged the divisive influence of entrenched pressure groups and conflicting political philosophies. But a fresh look at the crisis could sweep aside those problems and reach a national agreement. The cost, the uncertainty, the shortcomings of the present system are too much to bear. And that’s not to mention the burden of paperwork on doctors, clinics, hospitals and consumers.