Let's Reset the Tone In the Health Care Debate

September 04, 2009 - The Miami Herald
By Richard Gephardt and Tommy Thompson

Far too often in our nation's policy-making process, we allow ourselves to get caught up in the divisive aspects of issues rather than focusing on how we can work together to achieve a historic, bipartisan result. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the debate over health-care reform set to enter a critical phase when lawmakers return to Washington next week.

Regardless of the divisive tone, Congress and the administration cannot afford to get sidetracked. More than one out of seven Americans do not have health insurance. In the absence of meaningful near-term reform, the Urban Institute estimates that an additional 20 million Americans could be without health insurance by 2019. Every day that goes by without action creates more uncertainty, fear and risk.

Skyrocketing health-care costs, a key driver of the current debate, make families more vulnerable and place an unprecedented burden on many of our nation's businesses. Premiums alone for employer-sponsored health insurance in the United States have been rising four times faster, on average, than workers' earnings since 2000.

After weeks of spirited debate, it is time to officially reset the tone and come up with a bipartisan reform package that brings down costs, increases access and affordability, promotes American ingenuity and innovation and, most important, empowers individuals to prevent chronic disease that accounts for 75 percent of our nation's health expenditures and make better health choices.

When President Obama takes to the podium in front of a joint session of Congress next week, he should recommend three equally important steps:

First, a bipartisan White House summit focused on measurable, action-oriented ideas. Providing high-quality, affordable healthcare to every American is inherently a non-partisan issue. So is the need to increase insurance coverage, prevent chronic disease and promote innovation. By bringing together Democrats and Republicans, along with labor unions, business leaders and other stakeholders, the president would be sending a strong message that his administration is committed to reaching a meaningful solution this year.

As members of America's Agenda -- a bipartisan organization of businesses, labor unions and government leaders -- we recently conducted listening sessions around the country where we heard loud and clear that middle class Americans -- with and without insurance -- are bearing the burden of rising healthcare costs. With many Americans still struggling to put food on the table and a national unemployment rate approaching 10 percent, we cannot let partisan differences stand in the way of constructive conversation and dialogue.

Second, shine a spotlight on the common-ground policies that have taken a backseat to the divisive elements of the debate. Remarkably, for all the talk about the need to address skyrocketing healthcare costs, we have done little to help Americans understand how existing reform proposals will help prevent chronic disease, a proven cost driver and perhaps the most fundamental concern for an increasingly elderly population. Investing in health innovation -- from effective use of health information technology to funding breakthrough research and initiatives that will help cure our most pressing medical challenges -- should also be a centerpiece of the public dialogue around cost containment.

A recent survey commissioned by America's Agenda found a statistic on which Republicans and Democrats broadly agree. Seventy-five percent of voters support reform that will give their primary care or family doctor the support of a coordinated team of allied professionals like nurse practitioners, nutritionists and preventive care specialists. These health professionals would provide continuing care between doctor visits, increase the physician's productivity, decrease medical errors, and reduce health costs over the long run.

Third, explain in clear and simple terms how healthcare reform will create jobs and drive new investment in our nation's economy. In an expanded system, we will need more doctors, nurses, technicians and researchers. With chronic disease prevention as a cornerstone, we will create new opportunities in other fields, such as sustainable agriculture and nutrition.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that since the recession began in December 2007 employment in the healthcare sector has grown by 513,000 jobs. By recognizing the potential of better healthcare as a growth engine, we will be enabling much-needed activity across multiple sectors of our nation's economy.

Rarely do lawmakers have an unprecedented opportunity to unite behind an issue that affects every American, regardless of gender, age, income or party affiliation. As the president and Members of Congress come together on Capitol Hill next week, it is time to set aside the partisan rhetoric and reach a historic agreement that brings down cost, provides a boost to our nation's economy, increases coverage and protects overall quality of care.

Put simply, the American people deserve no less.

Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., a former leader of House Democrats, and Tommy Thompson, a former secretary of Health and Human Services and a former governor of Wisconsin, are members of America's Agenda.

(C)2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services


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