Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Congress must get health-care reform right

health care reform

The easiest way to understand the health reform debate is to compare it to a track meet, particularly a relay race. Speed is not the goal, however. Victory is getting across the finish line without dropping the baton.

First of all, it's a course that America must complete. Our current medical insurance system is increasingly unaffordable (both to families and the national budget) and mistreats tens of millions of Americans. Failure to finish the race will damage our country.

So when you criticize the athletes, think of what your strategy is for success.

The last time we tried reform, during the early years of the Clinton administration in 1993-94, the baton that the White House gave Congress turned out to be too heavy for Congress to handle. The race never really started; no key congressional committee in either the House or the Senate even voted on the Clinton proposal.

During this year's reform debate, Congress completed the first lap by putting together a bill in October that could be voted on by the House of Representatives. That was historic; it had never happened before.

The big news this past weekend was that the House of Representatives completed the second lap by passing the reform bill 220-215, handing the baton to the Senate to begin the third lap. We don't know yet how the Senate will run, but we will find out by the end of November or early December.

The Senate has a particularly difficult lap because it must get 60 votes, or a super-majority, to pass major legislation. A simple majority of 51 votes is not enough. This high hurdle means that the Senate usually prefers moderate legislation that can appeal to more people in more states.

If the Senate can pass a bill, then the crucial fourth lap will begin, probably in December. Under our Constitution, both the House and the Senate must agree on the same bill before it can be signed by the president to become law.

Today, the two legislative bodies have very different ideas of what makes good reform: The House approach helps the uninsured and underinsured in a more expensive and bureaucratic way than the likely Senate bill does.

I voted last week to allow the race to get to the third lap, believing that the Senate will produce a better bill. The alternative of dropping the baton is unacceptable, either for track meets or for good government. It would amount to a one-house veto.

Many people wanted the House to stop the race now by dropping the baton, but there are also people who watch NASCAR for the crashes. Many more people are hopeful that America will finally help families get a better deal on health insurance and health care. No one knows whether Congress will be able to make the eventual finish line after four laps. The vote was so close last week that the baton nearly slipped from our fingers. We're getting lots of advice because, just like with sports, every fan knows a lot more than the players or coaches. That's fair; Congress must do reform right because health care touches every life in the most profound way.

The ancient Hippocratic Oath says, "Do no harm," but that wisdom has never meant, "Do nothing." Citizens are right to be concerned about the eventual outcome of the debate, but they should resist those who are using scare tactics and misinformation.

I don't know whether Congress can succeed in finally passing a good bill, but I think America deserves the chance to see.