A defining moment to be judged

This debate on health care has long been personal even before I heard of Barack Obama: When I was denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition and, during a three-year period, my tiny business paid close to $40,000 for a COBRA plan. And now my friend is facing not only an intense personal battle, but a potentially crippling financial one as well.

Over the past couple of weeks, the health care reform debate has pulled sharply away from the House Bill 3200 that was such a lightning rod for criticism during the town halls. President Obama tacked to the political center during his speech before Congress on September 9, vowing not to add “one dime” to the federal budget deficit. That essentially kills HB 3200.

A week after Obama’s speech, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus unveiled an $856 billion health care reform plan. It would require most Americans to carry insurance and bars companies from excluding people with pre-existing conditions. It does not call for a government-run insurance option. It does set up a consumer-owned cooperative to compete with insurers. It would “not add a dime” to the deficit.

“The cost of America’s broken health care system has stretched families, businesses and the economy too far for too long,” Baucus explained. “For too many, quality, affordable health care is simply out of reach. This is a unique moment in history where we can finally reach an objective so many of us have sought for so long.”

Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius released this Census data on Indiana: Uninsured Hoosiers have increased from 669,000 in 2001 to 772,000 in 2008. The percentage of people with employer-based coverage decreased from 79% in 2001 to 70.6% in 2008. Workers without insurance increased from 13% in 2001 to 16.4% in 2008.

Republicans have influenced the Baucus bill, which is drawing fire from liberals who wanted the public option, and conservatives like Chris Chocola and the Club for Growth who call it “every bit as lethal as the government-run plan so loudly denounced across the nation last month.”

There are many details that are in flux and the Baucus Senate Finance plan still must pass that committee and be merged into a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill that passed last July.

These new developments moving toward the center are finding validation here in Indiana. “I can’t think of anything that the president said that I didn’t like, but then it’s all in the details,” said U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Evansville and a Blue Dog.

Last Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh said on MSNBC that a health bill had a “better than 50/50” chance of passing. Asked about the public option concept, Bayh explained, “Normally in our country we like the free market system to efficiently allocate resources. Now from time to time when you have a natural monopoly, the government steps in to regulate that so they don’t gouge consumers, and if you have to use the anti-trust laws or other steps to make sure there is robust competition … so people get the choices … so people get the lower costs they deserve, you use the law to that purpose. So I think we ought to try aggressive market reforms to give that competition and (the) lower prices the American people want.”

What I am amazed at is that no matter how much these reforms move to the center, the Republicans appear to become more entrenched in their opposition. They say the status quo isn’t acceptable, but are doing little to find common ground.

Who wants to find common ground in the public square when there’s an election 14 months away, even as families and businesses continue to get squeezed.

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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