With Congress' annual August recess looming, neither the Senate nor the House will be meeting President Barack Obama's deadline for votes on health-care reform before they leave town. And that's just as well.
It’s better for Congress to move deliberately in reconfiguring a system that accounts for one-sixth of the U.S. economy and affects every American.
Obama was right when he recently said that health care reform has been talked about in Washington for decades. The latest plans for reform, however, have only been taking shape over the past few weeks. They are enormously complex, and still undergoing revisions. If lawmakers acted on a plan before going home, few would have more than a rough idea what they were voting on.
Yet in calling for Congress to slow down, we recognize America's health system badly needs improving. The United States spends more on care than any other country for results that lag in many categories. Despite its high costs, the U.S. system is marked by uneven quality and unequal delivery of services. It leaves millions without regular care.
Some 47 million Americans currently lack health insurance. The numbers have steadily climbed in recent years and are still rising, driven by health-care costs that have raced past inflation.
The uninsured often end up in hospital emergency rooms for problems that could have been treated earlier, more effectively and less expensively by a family doctor. The high cost of their treatment gets passed on to those who do have insurance.
Rising health care costs have helped keep U.S. wages stagnant in recent years and made it increasingly difficult for American businesses to keep up with their global competitors. The Big Three U.S. automakers, to cite a notorious example, have been spending more on health care than on steel.
As it looks for ways to bring down costs, Congress needs to consider changing the fee-for-service model of paying for health care. That model creates a financial incentive for health providers to order unnecessary tests or procedures instead of to seek the most efficient way to heal patients.
Congress also needs to answer Obama’s call for a plan that doesn’t add to the federal deficit … Lawmakers should look for ways to pay for reform that spread the burden fairly and minimize harm to the economy.
Even though Democrats have commanding majorities in both chambers of Congress, it’s better for such a sweeping undertaking to be bipartisan. That’s more likely if Democrats and Republicans alike are willing to give a fair hearing to a variety of ideas, including a government insurance plan, a change in tax treatment for health coverage and limits on medical malpractice lawsuits. Nothing should be off the table. Health-care reform is important, and its consequences too great, for Congress to do a rush job.