EDITORIAL - National headache: Our health-care system is broken and must be fixed

Written by Susan Mannella on .

With the popularity of his plan slipping in the polls, President Barack Obama last week renewed his fight for health-care reform -- to which we say hurrah! Up until now, the critics and protesters have had an easy time of it.

If Mr. Obama is to rise to their challenge, a response the good of the nation desperately requires, he must realize that he is in a war with the status quo, and its defenders spend millions of dollars every day to contribute to the war's fog. What the polls really indicate is that their lies and misrepresentations are succeeding.


Contrary to right-wing propaganda, what is being planned is not socialism or communism or any other fictional political monster -- private insurers are going to be very much a part of the final deal, like it or not. Single-payer, which arguably might be called government health care, is not under serious consideration.

In the spirit of compromise, Mr. Obama has even indicated he is not wedded to the public option part of the plan that would give the private insurers some competition -- although he retreated somewhat from that position Thursday in the face of justifiable criticism.

Elsewhere in today's Forum section, two essays address other fictions in the health-care debate. Britain's National Health System, which shouldn't be compared to Mr. Obama's plan but is nevertheless often cited, is not the heartless entity of populist imagination. (And we don't see the people of Canada rising up to end their system either.)

As for the so-called "death panels" -- a particularly appalling falsehood designed to play on fears of the elderly -- that is really a provision to allow for voluntary end-of-life counseling, for those who want it, to be paid for by Medicare -- a sensible and humane idea that would be the shame of the nation if demagogues succeed in blocking it.

But for all the politically cynical spinning of facts, the hardest job of critics is to say the current system is working. It isn't -- and most Americans who aren't shouting know it. This reality is the best ground Mr. Obama can fight on.

You say that health-care reform is too expensive? The system is so expensive now that it is crippling the American economy and it is only going to get worse if nothing is done. Other industrialized countries provide health care for all their residents at a fraction of the cost in the United States, and this expense still leaves 47 million Americans uninsured.

Indeed, Mr. Obama made this point in his nationally televised press conference on July 22: "If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit. If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket. If we don't act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day. These are the consequences of inaction ..."

According to the nonpartisan National Coalition on Health Care, national health spending is expected to reach $2.5 trillion in 2009, accounting for 17.6 percent of the gross domestic product. By 2018, national health-care expenditures are expected to reach $4.4 trillion -- more than double the 2007 spending.

Whether the reforms proposed by Congress will arrest these costs is a fair and urgent question, but it's one that can be addressed only by those who come to the table with the intent of making the final plan as good as it can be. To their shame, the Republicans, with knees jerking in ideological spasms and mutters about socialism, have positioned themselves as implacable opponents. Instead, why can't they bargain for tort reform to be included in the package?

The GOP stance does nothing for the businesses that have seen their health-care costs go through the roof in recent years. It does nothing for those who have pre-conditions that rich insurance companies refuse to cover (talk about death panels). It does nothing to protect families from bankruptcy or debt when health problems overwhelm them. That is the situation in America today that people should be protesting angrily.

Mr. Obama has to get the message across, or else the America of tomorrow will be a worse place to live. Our national headache won't end without the proper prescription for reform -- and that's the best way to cut through the fog.


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