Daschle: Incremental Health Reforms Won’t Work

Kaiser Health News
March 2, 2010

Q: What are the parallels or contrasts between the Clinton administration’s efforts to get a health care overhaul in 1993-94 and now?

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle:  … You’ve got a lot more recognition that we don’t have a luxury this time to fail. Per capita costs were $3,400 in 94, they’re $8,000 now. The level of uninsured was 37 million, and now I think it’s over 50 million.

Whether it’s quality, access or costs you can look at all the numbers, they’ve dropped precipitously, and we’ve been able to demonstrate, if anything, out of these last 15 years that incremental reform doesn’t work. We’ve tried incremental reform with SCHIP and with the passage of Part D and maybe portability, a couple things here and there. We’ve seen everything go south, and it’s going to continue to do that until we put in place the corrective policy building blocks to address this more comprehensively.

Daschle: Are you satisfied that the Senate bill does enough to control costs?

A. I don’t think that either version of the bill does enough. I look at this whole effort as having three components: insurance reform, payment reform and delivery reform. And all three components have cost containment elements in them. Not nearly as much as I’d like, but I think a lot of the building blocks are going to be in place. But you can’t expect one bill to comprehensively deal with each one of these components to everyone’s satisfaction. I tell audiences all over the country, that if this passes I think we’re on the 30-yard line, that we’ve got 70 yards to go to accommodate really significant change in the system, adequate enough to be able to say we’ve addressed cost, access and quality in a meaningful way.



Why Incremental Reforms Will Not Solve the Health Care Crisis

By Don McCanne, MD
Journal of the American Board of Family Practice
16:257-261 (2003)

The record of incrementalism to date is unimpressive. Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act have been important programs that have provided access and coverage for many who need it. These programs alone, however, have been grossly deficient in filling the greater voids in our system. The numbers of uninsured Americans continue to increase. Health care costs continue to escalate well beyond the rate of inflation, while no efforts are being made to reduce the egregious waste of our administrative excesses. We are spending more on health care administration alone than is allocated for our entire national military defense budget. Health care outcomes continue to be much worse in the United States than in other industrialized nations that provide coverage for everyone at a much lower cost than that of our fragmented and inefficient system. Furthermore, inadequate coverage is now threatening the financial security of many of those that actually do have insurance.

Despite the failure of incrementalism, these approaches continue to have support primarily because of the perception that the nation does not want a “taxpayer-funded, government solution.” Ironically, health care is already 60% publicly funded, and nearly all incremental proposals involve public policy, especially tax policy, and actually further increase taxpayer funding of health care.


Incremental models of reform perpetuate our flawed, fragmented system of funding health care. They perpetuate inequities both in the funding of health care and in the allocation of our health care resources. They limit choice of health care providers. None assures continuity of coverage and care. Many incremental proposals barely have an effect on the numbers of uninsured, and none of them ensure truly universal coverage. All incremental approaches substantially increase health care costs, and most current proposals assure neither financial security nor health security.

In contrast, a single payer program would provide affordable, equitable, comprehensive care for everyone.

Whether through tax policy, public programs, regulatory oversight, mandated coverage, or a combination of these and other interventions, the government will be intimately involved in our health care funding. We can no longer afford to dismiss any valid option because it is a government solution, especially in that all proposals are government solutions. We must decide how we can best use our government resources to be sure that we are receiving the greatest value for our health care investment. Limiting our consideration to various incremental solutions closes the door on the health care reform goals of equity, affordability, and efficiency, and it threatens the goals of universality, provider choice, access, and comprehensiveness. When all are readily achievable, why accept less?


To understand that incremental reforms have not worked, all you have to do is look at the increasing numbers of uninsured, the greater numbers with inadequate insurance, the steep increases in health care prices, the perversities of the private insurers, and the administrative waste and other dysfunctions of our multi-payer and non-payer system. Everyone agrees that incrementalism has failed us, even Tom Daschle and Don McCanne.

Daschle and McCanne also agree that the policies contained in the House and Senate bills also fall far short. As Tom Daschle states, “… that if this passes I think we’re on the 30-yard line, that we’ve got 70 yards to go to accommodate really significant change in the system, adequate enough to be able to say we’ve addressed cost, access and quality in a meaningful way.”

Think of what he has said. The policies contained in these bills are highly flawed incremental steps that won’t even get us one-third of the way there, at the same time that he tells us that incremental reform won’t work.

In my article (link above) I discuss some of the incremental policies and why they have not worked and will not work. Although some of the terminology and policy proposals have evolved since the article was written, it does discuss several of the concepts in the legislation supported by Congress and President Obama. The basics are the same; incremental health reforms won’t work.

For those who say, “yes, but the insurance market reforms are an improvement over what we now have,” we need to acknowledge that not only are these incremental steps, but they take us down the WRONG path. They lock us into a profoundly wasteful and inefficient financing system that, by design, draws off much needed and evermore scarce health care dollars by prioritizing the interests of a parasitic industry over the interests of patients.

Tom Daschle explains that, once this legislation passes, most of the work will still be left to do. The flaw with this strategy is that everyone will walk away pretending that health care has been reformed. It will take another decade or two of financial hardship, suffering and even death before our elected leaders will admit that this didn’t work. That is far too great of a price to pay for us to let them off the hook now.

Addendum:  If the legislation does pass, PNHP is not walking away. Get used to listening to our clamoring.