As an annual meeting of progressives should start, the Families USA conference of health advocates began in Washington D.C. this morning with applause and cheers of the announcement of President Obama's imminent signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the anticipated adoption of a bill expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
I missed the day's first talk by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been making headlines lately for his adopted role of Medicare kickback watchdog. (He's the only Republican I see on the agenda.)
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) spoke next and promised successful passage of broad health reforms after the economic stimulus legislation is finalized. Vague on details, but full of enthusiasm gleaned from the opportunity seen in the current economic crisis, Hoyer said, "This is our moment."
"If we fail, if we have to revisit this issue in 10 or 15 years," he said, "I don't want even want to think about how bleak the picture will be then."
Staying on the progressive theme, Princeton University economics professor Uwe Reinhardt took the podium and with his characteristic humor and wit explained how America got into its current economic crisis and the important role health care will play in getting out of it.
"Health care is the economic locomotive of the American economy — for better or worse," he said.
Covering all the uninsured would be a fantastic economic stimulus, he said, because all the money would be spent here in America. He added, that even people without a conscience should agree that's a sound economic argument.
In the long run, health care spending has to be reigned in, he acknowledged, but as long as Congress control's Medicare's purse strings, he doesn't seem too optimistic that will occur in a fair and efficient manner.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) gave the keynote speech at lunch. Waxman has been working on health care reform in Congress for decades. From his perch as chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, which he wrestled away from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) last year, Waxman will play a key role in any health reform plan.He alluded to the power of his committee in saying that any plan passed out of his committee has a decent chance of gaining support in the House and Senate.Waxman said his strategy is to start with the defined the goal of "affordable, high quality, universal health coverage" and do whatever it takes to accomplish it. Bipartisan support is necessary, he said. Indeed, the Senate will need 60 votes to prevent a fillibuster. Democrats now have 58 senators in their caucus — possibly 59 depending on the outcome of Minnesota's legal battle between Al Franken and Norm Coleman."If we're going to succeed, we need to find common ground," Waxman said.He emphasized the need to build on the existing system and infrastructure. (He quoted from Atul Gawande's recent New Yorker article about global lessons of health reform and path dependency.)His broad outline includes building on Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP and the employer-sponsored health insurance system, and creating of a new public insurance program that any citizen could buy into."We must have a significant role for private insurance but it's critically important to have a public program alternative," he said.To those who say the country cannot afford major health reform now, Waxman's response is that the nation cannot afford not to."This isn't something to put off," he said. "This is something to do right now to help fix our economy. This is our time. We need to work together. We need to get this accomplished this year."