There’s been a lot of commentary and puzzlement in the opinionsphere about exactly how Obama is trying to sell his health care reform. Part of the problem is that our system is messy – and Obama does not feel it is feasible to try to start anew. So, instead, Obama is seeking to accomplish two goals with his reform: to “bend the curve” of overall spending on health care; and to provide some form of health insurance to those Americans without it. The problem is that each of these problems seem to be inherent parts of our status quo – as the health insurance industry has sought to drive down medical costs not by incentivizing cheaper effective treatments as in most industries, but by purging the sick from its coverage. Ezra Klein describes this business model most vividly:
Private insurance is a bit like a fire department that turns a profit by letting buildings burn down.
But, as medical professionals swear an oath to provide aid to those who need it, hospital emergency rooms and the government then are forced to pick up the slack. Thus, the health insurance model does not reduce the cost of health care but merely pushes these costs onto the rest of us. This is at least part of the reason America pays about $6,500 more for health care per person – as David Leonhardt writes:
We may not be aware of this stealth $6,500 health care tax, but if you take a moment to think, it makes sense. Over the last 20 years, health costs have soared, and incomes have grown painfully slowly. The two trends are directly connected: employers had to spend more money on benefits, leaving less for raises.
In exchange for the $6,500 tax, we receive many things. We get cutting-edge research and heroic surgeries. But we also get fabulous amounts of waste — bureaucratic and medical.
One thing we don’t get is better health than other rich countries…
This isn’t the only thing causing health care costs to rise so quickly – but it is the most obviously flawed compenent of our system and one of the drivers of the escalating costs and declining level of care. And it is very unclear what benefits – if any – our health insurance model provides. It is an industry which seems designed purely to create profits for a select few and disburse costs to the population at large.
Obama has done rather well in making this case – in attacking the status quo. But the question is: What is he offering? Matt Yglesias suggested, “Health care security” and I think that’s about right. Obama expressed the same idea:
Reform is about every American who has ever feared that they may lose their coverage…
At the same time, as Ezra Klein points out, most people are currently satisfied with their health care – and want more choices rather than less. Klein suggests:
The answer, put simply, is that you don’t institute rapid change. You don’t take what people have. But you give them the option to trade up to something better. As the theory goes, if the current system really is so inefficient, and your alternative really is so much better, then the lure of lower costs and better quality will persuade Americans to switch to the new system of their own accord.
The policies to address these issues are there – in some form in the plans being discussed. The measures that deal with these should be strengthened. And the positive case for health care reform should be simple, always repeated the words choice and security:
Health Care Reform: Delivering Security and Choice to the Middle Class
[Image by dmason licensed under Creative Commons.]