Long before anyone had been nominated or elected, the voters of 2008 had gotten one message across loud and clear: Fix our dysfunctional health care system! For obvious reasons (and big reasons that aren't so obvious), the leaders of 2009 must heed that call.
America's health care system is in meltdown. More than 45.7 million of us have no health insurance. But even those with good insurance face rising costs and a growing risk of losing the protection they have. Every year, tens of millions of Americans go uninsured for long periods — when a layoff, a divorce, or illness itself disrupts their ability to get or pay for coverage. (Forty-one percent of working-age Americans making $20,000 to $40,000 per year lacked insurance for at least part of 2007.) Still more millions are seriously under-insured, though many don't realize it since insurance companies tend to be secretive about the conditions and procedures they refuse to cover — until we actually need the care.
In an economy that's gone bad and getting worse, countless American families — insured and uninsured alike — live in dread of being plunged into poverty or destitution by a major health problem. In fact, more than half of all individual and family bankruptcies are triggered by medical bills.
Health care is a momentous problem in its own right. It's also hugely important as part of the broader breakdown of economic security in our country, and as a symbol of political gridlock and unresponsive government. For all these reasons, it's an issue to be addressed boldly, decisively, and, at the same time, with an extra measure of care.
If we were starting from scratch, "single payer" might be the way to go. With one public insurance plan covering everyone, Americans could potentially realize hundreds of billions of dollars a year in savings on pointless bureaucracy and profits — more than enough to cover the uninsured and improve coverage for tens of millions of under-insured.
But we are not starting from scratch. During World War II, U.S. employers began providing health insurance as a way to attract scarce workers at a time of strict wage-price controls. Tax laws went on to codify our employer-based system, which even now provides health care for 160 million Americans — a majority of those not on Medicare. Their support was the critical missing piece in 1993. That's when the Clinton administration set out confidently down the path of health care reform — only to see its proposal cut to shreds by insurer-sponsored TV spots in which a middle-class couple called "Harry and Louise" warned of a sinister plot to "force us to pick from a few health care plans designed by government bureaucrats."
The good news is that Americans are much more suspicious of the insurance industry now than they were then. Many people have wised up to the way insurers compete by cherry-picking younger, healthier workers and employing armies of agents to deny claims — sometimes even when it means condemning someone to premature death or a lifetime of chronic illness. Of all the world's nations, the United States spends by far the most money on health care per capita and in total. Our health care system is enormously wasteful and chaotically organized — and Americans know it. About two-thirds of all voters are prepared to see taxes increase in order to provide high-quality health insurance for everyone. Even a majority of those who are satisfied with their coverage now grasp the need for major reform.
The sticking point for many, however, is the ability to keep the insurance they have. The answer is to guarantee that option, building it into a plan that also lets people choose from a menu of private insurance alternatives (with regulated benefits and costs) or sign up for a Medicare-like public plan, which can act as a benchmark for its private competitors. That's the concept behind Health Care for America, a proposal put together by the political scientist Jacob Hacker with the support of the Economic Policy Institute.
Health Care for America is simple and flexible enough to appeal to a majority of Americans, but bold enough to do the job of covering everyone and controlling health price inflation. And it holds the promise of becoming better over time, as more and more Americans shift over to the public plan, lured by its higher efficiency and more generous benefits.