We have seen this coming for many weeks, but the release of the Baucus plan in recent days by the Senate Finance Committee, without any Republican support within the Gang of Six, leaves no more doubt about Republican intentions or votes on health care reform. House Republicans have already been clear in their total opposition to reform bills in the House. Republicans want nothing to do with reform except to derail any plan put forward by the Democrats, and are salivating over making a defeat on health care reform a Waterloo event for the Obama Administation, carrying over into the elections of 2010 and 2012.

Meaningful reform of the health care system, truth be told, was lost more than two years ago when the basic issues were framed up. The Democratic frame was too centrist from the beginning. It was a surrender-in-advance approach intended to gain moderate and some bipartisan support by saying that the system is basically sound and just needs incremental change. “If you like your insurance, you can keep it” was the byword. The real question should have been what kind of financing system should we have—multi-payer, keeping alive through generous subsidies a failing insurance industry, or single-payer public financing coupled with a private delivery system.

So the Democrats started from a weak frame, and through the many compromises along the way in the House and Senate have ended up with an expensive, defanged “reform” bill. Compromises in the political center have not gained Republican votes, and have only lessened the chances of any reform bill being effective. The right has demagogued and distorted the issues, but is correct on one count—any of the bills in Congress (except H. R. 676, the Conyers bill, still relegated to the closet) will fail to contain health care costs, and will instead add at least some $800 billion or more to the federal government’s costs over the next ten years. We have already seen evidence that the pledged contributions toward the costs of health care reform made last spring by corporate stakeholders in our market-based system will be more than repaid to them through new revenue streams to their industries if any of the bills now being considered in Congress are enacted. (links to “Alliance” blogs #28, 29, 30 and 33).

President Obama’s convictions on health care reform are still unclear and contradictory. They seem to be intended as centrist and negotiable, as if nothing is really worth fighting for. He would have “started with single-payer if I were starting from scratch”. Then, even while portraying the insurance companies as villains and obstacles to reform, he concludes that we should build on our private multi-payer system and “hold them honest” with a public option. But weak as the public option has became (link to Blog # 21), he still won’t draw a line in the sand in its defense, calling it “only a sliver of my reform plan.”

There is no question that Obama is a pragmatist. So if only on pragmatic grounds, it is time for him to change course (now!) before his plan is gang-tackled in the middle of the field by opponents in both parties, including Blue Dog Democrats as well as progressives on the left who have given up on his plan. So, Obama needs to pick up the single-payer ball (H.R. 676), pivot, roll out to the left, pick up his interference, and run around left end for pay dirt. If he does so, he will have a majority of the public with him, and the number of co-sponsors of the bill will soar as timid members of Congress get political cover and discover stronger backbones. That demonstration of unambiguous presidential leadership could unify the Democratic party in favor of health care reform, and gain further support among fiscal conservatives, whether Republicans or Independents.

Here is what Obama faces if he stays on his present course in the middle of the road. The political discourse will get even uglier and more divided. Amendments from both sides of the aisle will further gut bills pending in Congress. If any bill gets out of committee to votes on the floor in the House and Senate, it will still face further revision by a Joint Conference committee. A bill with bipartisan support appears to be out of the question, and Democrats are likely to become even more fragmented as time goes on. So either a bill dies in Congress or any watered-down bill that may survive to be enacted will likely fail to contain surging costs of health care or make health care and insurance more affordable. Either way, the Democrats lose on the issue, and because of that loss, the stage is set for a Republican counter-attack during the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Based upon what has already happened in Congress and likely political dynamics going forward, here is what any surviving health care bill would probably look like:

• Individual mandate, with minimal restraints on the insurance industry and large federal subsidies for many years to come
• No employer mandate or public option
• Health care exchanges and co-ops, despite lack of evidence for their effectiveness (Link to Blog # 25)
• No negotiation by the government of prescription drugs prices
• Major expansion of Medicaid, again with large federal subsidies and states pushing back against their share of payments
• Minimal or no savings from projected savings hoped for by cutbacks in Medicare and Medicaid
• Continued escalation of health care costs and insurance premiums far above wages and cost-of-living, with little improvement in affordability for millions of Americans
• Record federal and state deficits calling for emergent action

If all that happens, President Obama will lose his credibility, his legacy will be tarnished and his political future clouded. His failure will match that of the Clinton Health Plan in 1993 and 1994, when many of the same mistakes were made. More important, “reform” won’t work, costs will continue to spiral upward, access will further deteriorate, the numbers of uninsured and underinsured will rise further, and the 45,000 American lives lost each year will increase.

The only winners with health care “reform” will be corporate stakeholders who get to keep raising their prices without significant government oversight. The insurance industry will join the list of industries bailed out by generous government subsidies even as they deplore “big government”.

If he were to acknowledge impending failure and change course to the left, this could be Obama’s FDR moment. In 1936, confronted by the Great Depression and corporate self-interest such as we see today, this is what he said to an audience at Madison Square Garden:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by an organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.”

This is the kind of bold leadership and political courage called for in our turbulent times today. Our democracy is being challenged, as are our values and character. As usual, time will tell what kind of society we have become.

Dr. John Geyman is professor emeritus of family medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, a past president of Physicians for a National Health Program and author of “Do Not Resuscitate: Why the Health Insurance Industry Is Dying, and How We Must Replace It.”

Buy John Geyman’s Books at: http://www.commoncouragepress.com