Is the Senate health-care reform bill still worth passing?Ezra Klein , Washington Post
December 15, 2009; 10:15 AM ET
"Insurance companies win," Markos Moulitsas tweeted last night. "Time to kill this monstrosity coming out of the Senate."
This was, for progressives, a frustrating vote. But the flip side of it being morally unconscionable for Joe Lieberman to put the bill at risk over something as small as Medicare buy-in for 3-or-so million people is that the absence of Medicare buy-in -- and of the weak public plan -- is not reason enough to oppose the bill, either.
The core of this legislation is as it always was: $900 billion, give or take, so people who can't afford health-care insurance suddenly can. Insurance regulations paired with the individual mandate, so insurers can't discriminate against the sick and the healthy can't make insurance unaffordable by hanging back until the moment they need medical care. The construction of health insurance exchanges so the people currently left out of the employer-based market are better served, and the many who will join them as the employer system continues to erode will have somewhere to go.
That's all policy. And as I spent yesterday arguing, it has a tendency to overshadow the lives in the balance. You can choose your estimate. The Institute of Medicine's methodology says 22,000 people died in 2006 because they didn't have health-care coverage. A recent Harvard study found the number nearer to 45,000. Since we talk about the costs of health-care reform over a 10-year period, may as well talk about the lives saved that way, too. And we're looking, easily, at more than a hundred thousand lives, to say nothing of the people who will be spared bankruptcy, chronic pain, unnecessary impairment, unnecessary caretaking, bereavement, loss of wages, painful surgeries, and so on.
A lot of progressives woke up this morning feeling like they lost. They didn't. The public option and its compromised iterations were a battle that came to seem like a war. But they weren't the war. The bill itself was. When liberals talked about the dream of universal health-care insurance 10, 20 and 30 years ago, they talked about the plight of the uninsured, not the necessity of a limited public option in competition with private insurers.
"This is a good bill," Sen. Sherrod Brown said on Countdown last night. "Not a great bill, but a good bill." That's about right. But the other piece to remember is that more than it's a good bill, it's a good start. With $900 billion in subsidies already in place, it's easier to add another hundred billion later, if we need it, than it would be to pass $1 trillion in subsidies in 2011. With the exchanges built and private insurers unable to hold down costs, it's easier to argue for adding a strong public option to the market than it was before we'd tried regulation and a new competitive structure. With 95 percent of the country covered, it's easier to go the final 5 percent. And with a health-care reform bill actually passed, it's easier to convince legislators that passing such bills is possible.
On its own terms, the bill is the most important social policy achievement since the Great Society. It will save a lot of lives and prevent a lot of suffering. But moving forward, it also makes future improvements and expansions easier. A lot of the hard work of health-care reform -- in particular, the money for subsidies -- will finish this year. If reformers want to come back for the public option or more subsidies in a future year, they won't be doing it atop a $900 billion price tag that's being battered by tea parties and industry and everyone else. This bill doesn't have all the good stuff it should have, but reformers can stand atop what good stuff it does have and focus their energies on what good stuff is left to achieve.
PERSONAL NOTE: If the Senate bill were to pass as is, and no changes were made to it in the conference committee, it would still guarantee that my best friend's family, who have already seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills over the course of their lifetime, not be cut from their health insurance plan once their bills exceed $1 million, a point that is quickly approaching.