Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis

By Senator Tom Daschle, with Scott S. Greenberger and Jeanne M. Lambrew
Thomas Dunne Books, February 2008

The key question for any health-care reform plan is, “How will it cover people?” Most of the world’s highest-ranking health-care systems employ some kind of “single-payer” strategy – that is, the government, directly or through insurers, is responsible for paying doctors, hospitals, and other health-care providers. Supporters say single-payer is brilliantly simple, ensures equity by providing all people with the same benefits, and saves billions of dollars by creating economies of scale and streamlining administration. But pure single-payer system is politically problematic in the United States, at least right now. Even though polls show that seniors are happier with Medicare than younger people are with their private insurance, opponents of reform have demonized government-run systems as “socialized medicine.”

I have strong views on what an “ideal” system would look like. But I’m not willing to sacrifice worthy improvements on the altar of perfection. I find it encouraging that the leading Democratic presidential contenders appear to share this attitude. The proposals that Obama, Clinton, and Edwards put forward would improve our current system rather than scrapping it, using the Massachusetts reform plan as a model.

The Federal Health Board

I believe a Federal Health Board should be charged with establishing the system’s framework and filling in most of the details. This independent board would be insulated from political pressure and, at the same time, accountable to elected officials and the American people.

First, it would set the rules for the expanded FEHBP, placing conditions on the private insurers wishing to participate.

Second, the Federal Health Board would promote “high-value” medical care by recommending coverage of those drugs and procedures backed by solid evidence.

A third function of the Federal Health Board would be to align incentives with high-quality care.

Finally, the Federal Health Board might also play a role in rationalizing our health-care infrastructure.

When it was announced that Tom Daschle was Barack Obama’s choice to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, it was also announced that he would not only be an administrator, but also he would lead the team that is crafting the definitive health care reform proposal for the Obama administration. That is why Sen. Daschle’s book, “Critical,” is important to us. It provides us with the views of the person who will be working with Congress to reform our health care system.

The fundamentals of his proposal are essentially the same as those proposed by Barack Obama, Max Baucus, and most of the other Democrats who have been advocating for reform. He would continue employer-sponsored coverage, expand public programs, and provide an FEHBP-type program, including a Medicare-like option. He would attempt to achieve universal coverage through an individual mandate with financial assistance for lower-income individuals.

Daschle also includes other concepts that are making the political rounds, such as information systems, community health centers, quality measurements, and “shared responsibility.”

One essential reform that seems to be missing from his proposal is the need to reinforce our primary care infrastructure, providing everyone with a medical home. Maybe that could be extrapolated from his call for rationalizing our health care infrastructure, but, if so, it is of such great importance that he should advocate for it explicitly.

What is relatively unique in Daschle’s proposal is the recommendation for a Federal Health Board, based on a model similar to the Federal Reserve System. One of the more important functions would be to provide oversight of the private insurance industry in his multi-payer system, a role that would be unnecessary in a single payer system. The other functions he describes can easily be or already are provided by existing agencies, though introduction of a single payer system would certainly be accompanied with appropriate bureaucratic reform.

Although he recommends that this board be quasi-independent, insulated from political influence, there is still risk that ideological extremists could gain control. Think of the failure of the Federal Reserve System to provide adequate oversight of our financial system, contributing to our current financial meltdown. That might not have occurred if free-market ideologues such as Alan Greenspan had not been in charge of the Federal Reserve. The Supreme Court is also insulated from political interference, yet obviously it too is controlled by ideologues, over whom we have no control. Imagine if we had a Federal Health Board composed of those individuals who, through the Medicare Modernization Act, damaged our public Medicare program. If they had been in control of such a board, we could have been much further down the road toward their goal of a totally privatized Medicare system.

Most troubling is Sen. Daschle’s conclusions on single payer. He describes it as the model used by the “world’s highest-ranking health care systems.” He acknowledges, without dispute, that supporters say that it is “brilliantly simple, ensures equity by providing all people with the same benefits, and saves billions of dollars by creating economies of scale and streamlining administration.” Yet he rejects it merely because it is “politically problematic.” He would sacrifice the “ideal” system because he is “not willing to sacrifice worthy improvements on the altar of perfection.”

It certainly is true that opportunities for enacting beneficial policies can be missed when the politics are not in alignment. But it is also true that bringing the politics into alignment can eliminate the opportunity to enact ideal policies. For success in achieving a high-performance health care system, we shouldn’t sacrifice policy; we should change the politics.