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DANGER! COURSE CORRECTION ALERT!

By JOE FLOWER

A hot take on healthcare in the Democratic debate: They’re doing it wrong.

Healthcare is not a reason to choose between the Democratic candidates. 

They are all for greater access and in some way to cover everyone, which is great. 

None of their plans will become law, but if they are elected those plans will become the starting point of a long discussion and legislative fight. The difference in their plans (between, say, Buttigieg or Biden and Warren or Sanders) is more of an indication of their general attitude toward governance rather than an outline of where we will end up.

Democrats are focused on coverage, Trump is on cost. 

Around 90% of Americans already have coverage of some sort. Polls show that healthcare is voters’ #1 priority. Read the polls more closely, and you’ll see that it’s healthcare cost specifically that they are worried about.

Democrats seem to assume that extending more government control will result in lower costs. This is highly debatable, the devil’s in the details, and our past history on this is good but not great. 

The President, on the other hand, can make flashy pronouncements and issue Executive Orders that seem intended to bring down costs and might actually. It’s highly questionable whether they will be effective, or effective any time soon. Still, they make good headlines and they especially make for good applause lines at a rally and good talking points on Fox.

But, Ms. and Mr. Average Voter will hear that Trump is very concerned about bringing down their actual costs. The Democratic plans all sound to the untutored ear (which is pretty much everyone but policy wonks like you and me) like they will actually increase costs while taking away the insurance that 90% already have in one way or another.

It is important to take care of everyone. But it is a mistake for the Democrats to allow this to become a battle of perception between cost and coverage. Voters’ real #1 concern is about cost, not coverage.

Joe Flower has 40 years of experience in the healthcare world and has emerged as a thought leader on the deep forces changing the system in the United States and around the world.

The Enthusiasm Gap

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I had dinner the other night with a Democratic pollster who told me Dems are heading toward next fall’s mid-term elections with a serious enthusiasm gap: The Republican base is fired up. The Dem base is packing up.

The Dem base is lethargic because congressional Democrats continue to compromise on everything the Dem base cares about. For a year now it’s been nothing but compromises, watered-down ideas, weakened provisions, wider loopholes, softened regulations.

Health care went from what the Dem base wanted — single payer — to a public option, to no public option, to a bunch of ideas that the President tried to explain last week, and it now hangs by a string as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid try to round up conservative Dems and a 51-vote reconciliation package in the Senate.

The jobs bill went from what the base wanted — a second stimulus — to $165 billion of extended unemployment benefits and aid to states and locales, then to $15 billion of tax breaks for businesses that make new hires.

Financial regulation went from tough new capital requirements, sharp constraints on derivate trading, a consumer protection agency, and a resurrection of the Glass-Steagall Act – all popular with the Dem base — to some limits on derivatives and a consumer-protection agency inside the Treasury Department and a rearrangement of oversight boxes, and it’s now looking like even less.

The environment went from the base’s desire for a carbon tax to a cap-and-trade carbon auction then to a cap-and-trade with all sorts of  exemptions and offsets for the biggest polluters, and now Senate Dems are talking about trying to do it industry-by-industry.

These waffles and wiggle rooms have drained the Democratic base of all passion. “Why should I care?” are words I hear over and over again from stalwart Democrats who worked their hearts out in the last election.

The Republican base, meanwhile, is on a rampage. It’s more and more energized by its mad-as-hell populists. Tea partiers, libertarians, Birchers, birthers, and Dick Armey astro-turfers are channeling the economic anxieties of millions of Americans against “big government.”

Technically, the Dems have the majority in Congress and could still make major reforms. But conservative, “blue-dog” Dems won’t go along. They say the public has grown wary of government. But they must know the public hasn’t grown even more wary of big business and Wall Street, on which effective government is the only constraint.

Anyone with an ounce of sanity understands government is the only effective countervailing force against the forces that got us into this mess: Against Goldman Sachs and the rest of the big banks that plunged the economy into crisis, got our bailout money, and are now back at their old games, dispensing huge bonuses to themselves. Against WellPoint and the rest of the giant health insurers who are at this moment robbing us of the care we need by raising their rates by double digits. Against giant corporations that are showing big profits by continuing to lay off millions of Americans and cutting the wages of millions of more, by shifting jobs abroad and substituting software. Against big oil and big utilities that are raising prices and rates, and continue to ravage the atmosphere.

If there was ever a time to connect the dots and make the case for government as the singular means of protecting the public from these forces it is now. Yet the White House and the congressional Dem’s ongoing refusal to blame big business and Wall Street has created the biggest irony in modern political history. A growing portion of the public, fed by the right, blames our problems on “big government.”

Much of the reason for the Democrats’ astonishing reluctance to place blame where it belongs rests with big business’s and Wall Street’s generous flows of campaign donations to Dems, coupled with their implicit promise of high-paying jobs once Democratic officials retire from government. This is the rot at the center of the system. And unless or until it’s remedied, it will be difficult for the President to achieve any “change you can believe in.”

To his credit, Obama himself has not scaled back his health-care ambitions all that much, and he appears, intermittently, to want to push conservative blue-dog Dems to join him on a bigger jobs bill, tougher financial reform, and a more effective approach to global warming. (His overtures to Republicans seem ever more transparently designed to give blue-dog Dems cover to vote with him.)

But our President is not comfortable wielding blame. He will not give the public the larger narrative of private-sector greed, its nefarious effect on the American public at this dangerous juncture, and the private sector’s corruption of the democratic process. He has so far eschewed any major plan to get corporate and Wall Street money out of politics. He can be indignant– as when he lashed out at the “fat cats” on Wall Street – but his indignation is fleeting, and it is no match for the faux indignation of the right that blames government for all that ails us.

Robert Reich served as the 22nd United States Secretary of Labor under President William Jefferson Clinton from 1992 to 1997.  He blogs at RobertReich.com, where this post first appeared.

Martha’s Mistakes

Picture 58 Not one to comment on broader political issues but just can’t help myself today after awakening to the news that Kennedy’s Senate seat has gone to the Republican upstart Scott Brown.  Whatever happened to carrying on Kennedy’s legacy for healthcare reform, something Martha Coakley vowed to support and Brown vowed to defeat? Has Massachusetts really gone Red (or just a lighter shade of Blue)?

Reflecting on my own thoughts and vote for Martha, have come up with the following missteps of Martha’s that ultimately led to her losing what was considered a sure thing, Kennedy’s seat in Congress.

1) Assuming the cat is in the bag. Skating to an overwhelming victory in the Democratic primary, Martha naturally assumed that Kennedy’s seat was her’s for the taking.  Sure, the Republicans would put someone on their ticket, a sacrificial lamb, but a serious contender, no.  Surprise, surprise.  Yes, the Republicans put forward a relatively unknown State Senator from a small community, but this unknown Scott Brown proved to be an extremely engaging and aggressive politician.  By the time Martha’s political machine realized that they had a serious challenger on their hands, it was too late, his momentum too great.

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The Boston Massacre

Robert Laszewski Tuesday’s Republican victory in Massachusetts means the current Democratic health care bills will not be on the President’s desk in 2010.

Forget the crazy talk of ramming something through—including just having the House pass the pending Senate bill.

I’ve talked to lots of people in the past few months that didn’t like the Democratic effort but conceded that the Dems won the 2008 election on a platform to do health care their way. They would say, “elections matter” and could, albeit begrudgingly, understand Democratic attempts to pass their brand of health care.

But losing Ted Kennedy’s former seat in Massachusetts with the singular issue being health care?

The game has changed. Democrats just can’t any longer spin the polls that for months have been so negative on the Democratic health care efforts.

The conclusion is now crystal clear—the people don’t want this. For goodness sakes—they rejected it in Massachusetts! On the political shocker scale this rivals “Dewey Defeats Truman” and the ’94 elections.

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Coal in Your Christmas Stocking?

Is there anyone left, on either side of the political spectrum, who wants the Senate health care bill to pass?

Republican Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour had this to say about the Senate bill last week, “This health care plan is like mackerel in the moonlight. Longer that it's out there, the more that it stinks.”

And yesterday, MoveOn said this about the Senate Democratic health care bill in an email to its members, "America needs real health care reform—not a massive giveaway to the insurance companies. Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressives should block this bill until it's fixed."

When Haley Barbour and MoveOn are saying about the same things—this bill should be stopped in its current form albeit for very different reasons—that says a lot.

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Pelosi’s Hidden Tort Bomb — an Alternative View

Silver_charles_lgWe once thought Democrats would accept tort reform to win Republicans’ support for national health care legislation.  Now, however, Democrats have dispensed with bipartisanship.  Perhaps they think they can ram health care legislation through without any Republican backing.  Perhaps the price required to obtain even a few Republican votes was too high.  Perhaps Democrats received too much pressure from the trial bar.  Whatever the reason, neither the bill passed by the House nor the bill pending in the Senate contains any of the tort reform provisions Republicans want. To the contrary, the House health care bill is anti-tort reform.

Not only does it reject the entire slate of lawsuit restrictions Representative John Boehner put forward in the Republican alternative to the Democrats’ bill; it contains a provision that will reward states for scrapping damages caps and other tort reforms many already have in place.  This provision flew beneath the radar during the House debate, but the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal condemned it after the vote took place.  Describing the provision as a  “hidden Pelosi tort bomb,” the Journal editors predicted that “[i]f it passes in anything like its current form, we are going to be cleaning up the mess for decades to come.”

Most predictions that the sky will fall are wrong. This one is wrong as well.

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Will Victory on Health Care Reform Mean Defeat for the Democrats?

Being a futurist is not really about making predictions, but people ask for them anyway.

So here is one: The way things are trending right now, Obama and the Democrats will succeed in getting a reform bill – and it will cost them the Congress in 2010 and possibly the presidency in 2012. Why? Because it will be ineffective at bringing most voters any tangible benefits soon, and ineffective especially at bringing down the cost of health care.

Obama (along with everyone else) repeatedly talks about “affordable” health care. What the bill is most likely to bring is health insurance reform. This is very important, and will bring tangible benefits especially for those who must go without insurance now because they have “pre-existing conditions.” But there is nothing in the bills that are most likely to pass that will really bring down the costs of health care any time soon. Yet the bills demand that the health plans cover many more people, and the providers treat them, while putting in place no mechanisms that would forcefully and quickly control costs – so costs are likely to go up even faster than before.

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Health Care Reform’s Deeper Problems

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Congress’ health care reform debate has highlighted how American governance is broken and the difficulty of addressing our national problems.

Take, for example, whether health care is in crisis at all. Conservative commentators argue that America’s health system is fine, that our excellent care simply costs more than other countries’ poorer quality, and that most uninsureds can afford coverage. They ask why we should revamp a great system for the two or three percent of Americans who get less.

This misrepresents reality, though. Care and outcomes are often superior in other developed nations. In America, the ranks of the uninsured and under-insured have skyrocketed, from insurance costs that have grown four times general inflation for a decade. Health coverage is employers’ most unpredictable major cost, a threat to their businesses’ competitiveness, and they have increasingly offloaded costs onto employees. So while  the marginalized uninsured are an important problem, declining coverage for the mainstream is the greater worry. Most know that, even with insurance, any major health problem can spell financial ruin.

As businesses and individuals have been priced out of health coverage over the last four years, commercial health plan enrollment has plummeted by as much as 20 percent, or about 36 million people. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 40 percent who lose group health coverage probably become uninsured.

Fewer people buying coverage means less money to pay for health care products and services, so the industry is experiencing an unprecedented financial decline. With reforms looming, it has fiercely advocated for universal coverage, which would provide stable funding for a larger patient population. Meanwhile, the industry has opposed changing business mechanisms that encourage waste, even though experts agree that one-third or more of all health care cost is unnecessary or inappropriate. But this raises an important question. Why not spend less by recovering wasted dollars, and then improve access?

The industry has pressed its goals through lobbying, which lets special interests exchange campaign contributions for policy influence. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that, between January and June, the industry gave Congress more than $260 million. One lobbyist commented, “A person can reach no other conclusion than this is a quid pro quo [this for that] activity.”

The funds have gone mostly to Democrats, the party in power now, and are producing their contributors’ desired results. The current proposals expand coverage, but do little to reduce cost, failing to heed any of health care’s management lessons from the last 25 years. For example, they won’t re-empower primary care, which other nations have found will maintain a healthy populace for half the cost of our specialist-dominated approach. They fail to make care quality and cost transparent, which would let health care finally work as a market, and help identify the best health care vendors. They continue to favor fee-for-service reimbursement, which rewards delivering more products and services rather than rewarding results. And they all but ignore our capricious medical malpractice system, which most doctors say encourages defensive practice.

These problems and their solutions are structural, and are well understood within the industry. If reform does not pursue these structural approaches, health care will continue to drag down the larger economy. Our current problems will remain and intensify, at enormous cost.

Out of this experience, the American people should become aware of a couple of harsh truths.

First, so long as Congress willingly exchanges money for influence, American policy will favor special interests rather than the public interest. We’ll be unable to meaningfully address our national problems: energy, the environment, education, and so on.

Second, so long as partisans distort the truth to discredit their opponents, rather than focusing on our very real problems, America’s future will continue to be compromised.

Which is to say that we have deeper problems than an inability to fix health care.

Brian Klepper, PhD is a health care analyst based in Atlantic Beach. David C. Kibbe MD MBA is a physician and Senior Advisor to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

David C. Kibbe MD MBA is a Family Physician and Senior Advisor to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Brian Klepper PhD is a health care analyst.

More by these authors:

Live from Aspen: the moderates’ view on Obama health reform

6a00d8341c909d53ef0105371fd47b970b-320wi Paul Krugman’s article today excoriates the Blue Dogs and a former dog Billy Tauzin in particular. He also (as I did a week or so back) wonders where the Dogs were when the Bush tax cuts were bumping the deficit more than the proposed health reform bill will and redistributing wealth from future poorer taxpayers to the very rich in the process.

Funnily enough I’ve been at the Aspen Health Forum where the self-same Billy Tauzin used his not inconsiderable Cajun charm and a dollop of PhRMA’s money to buy me (and a bunch of others) a whisky and a s’more on Saturday night, and took part in a couple of panels I watched on Sunday. We had a couple of brief chats, one about his cancer treatment and another about getting big Pharma to behave better. He claims some progress there (voluntary restrictions on DTC, better posting of clinical trial data, reductions in marketing excess to docs). I suggested that there was more progress required both in pricing policy and PR. He said it was hard, I told him that was why they paid him the big bucks.

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