Health Care Debate Rages in Washington

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With President Obama pressing Congress to draft viable and fiscally prudent health care reform legislation by October, the debate over how to reform health care has intensified.

At present, the only real consensus on health care is that some kind of reform is needed. From one side of the political aisle to the other, health care reform fixes run the gamut from free-market solutions to government-run health care. And each fix has opponents who fear that the reforms could bring any number of cataclysms, from rationing, unsustainable debt, tax increases, to, perhaps worst of all, just more of the same.

Last week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), introduced the Affordable Health Choices Act. While many cheered this as the first real step toward health care reform, a number of powerful business groups expressed concerns over the first draft of the bill, including the National Retail Federation, the American Medical Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The HELP committee began marking up the bill yesterday, according to The Hill.

According to a HELP press statement, the Affordable Health Choices Act includes five major elements:

  • It will provide health care consumers choice - meaning that they won't have to change their current insurance if they don't want to, but the legislation will give citizens "new, more affordable options."

  • It promises to reduce health care costs "through stronger prevention, better quality of care, and use of information technology," among other initiatives.

  • It will give citizens information to "take charge of their own health" in order to prevent disease from ever striking.

  • It will modernize the health care system and make investments in the training of doctors, nurses, and other health professionals.

  • It will make it possible for the elderly and disabled to live at home and function independently. The act "will help them afford to put ramps in their homes, pay someone to check in on them regularly, or any of an array of supports that will enable them to stay in their communities instead of in nursing homes," the release noted.

The Small Business Majority (SBM), an organization advocating for health care reform on behalf of small businesses and the self-employed, issued a statement this week that warned that, without reform, small businesses will see their health insurance increase by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years, costing jobs, profits, and wages. SBM contends that "comprehensive reform that includes an employer contribution, with appropriate levels of tax credits, sliding scales and exclusions, will give small businesses the relief they need, potentially saving them as much as $855 billion over the next 10 years, reducing lost wages by up to $339 billion, and preserving as many as 128,000 jobs."

SBM reported that its opinion research shows that "64 percent of small business owners across the country support the concept of shared responsibility, and that most small business owners are willing to contribute toward a comprehensive solution that allows us to reduce costs and waste in the system while providing access to affordable, fair insurance for everyone." It is urging Congress to "craft the language that's win-win for small business, allowing this vital part of our economy to thrive and lead us into better economic times."

A number of business groups issued statements listing their concerns over measures in the Affordable Health Choices Act, USA Today reported. Some, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, do not want a government-run insurance program competing with private insurance companies, The Hill noted.

In addition, the National Association of Manufacturers wants legislators to remove a provision that would require most employers to provide health insurance to workers or else pay a penalty. In a letter dated June 2, 2009, to Senators Kennedy and Max Baucus, President Obama wrote: [W]hile I believe that employers have a responsibility to support health insurance for their employees, small businesses face a number of special challenges in affording health benefits and should be exempted."

Watch for continuing coverage of health care reform efforts in upcoming editions of Bookselling This Week. --David Grogan