The Cure That Dares Not Speak Its Name

In all of the debates about health care reform, one of the stubborn realities is that neither the Obama plan, nor any of the Republican alternatives, will seriously alter the trajectory of relentless cost-escalation in health care. If you look at the Administration's own projections of federal deficits in the next decade and after 2020, virtually all of the alarming growth in deficit spending is Medicare and Medicaid.

And that's only the public part of the health care bill. In 2009, total health care costs increased to 17.3 percent of GDP, with escalating premiums eating into both corporate profits and worker take home pay. The consensus among the usual policy experts is that there is no good solution. The march of technology and demography will just continue to raise health costs.

But you can reach that conclusion only by ignoring how the rest of the club of affluent countries manages to insure everyone for 9 or 10 percent of GDP, and have a healthier and longer-lived population, to boot. They do it, of course, through universal, socialized insurance.

There is no single formula. The Canadians do it with a single payer system for the insurance part, but physicians are private. The Brits have an integrated National Health Service. The Germans achieve near-universal coverage through a system of nonprofit health insurance plans.

What every other nation has in common is that they have taken the commercialism out of their health systems. As a consequence, they can direct health spending to areas of medical need rather than letting the market direct health dollars to areas of greatest profit. And with everyone covered, they can use highly cost-effective strategies for prevention, wellness, and public health. That's how you cover everyone for ten percent of GDP.

Our one island of single-payer medicine, Medicare, is phenomenally popular -- so popular that the Republicans' most effective attack on the Obama plan is that it would divert some money from Medicare. The Republicans, on the one hand, fiercely attack "government-run health insurance," while on the other they defend Medicare (which they would just as soon privatize).

But most Democratic politicians and policy wonks behave as if the option of a national health plan simply did not exist. These blinders are the result of the immense power of the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex combined with a failure of political leadership. Sooner or later, mainstream politicians will stumble their way to some form of single payer because there are no good alternatives unless we want to spend half of our GDP on health care.

In that regard, the best things about the still inconclusive end-game of Obama's efforts to enact his plan are that (1) the administration finally broke with the insurance industry, and (2) Obama is starting to get over the delusion of bipartisanship. So if we don't need either Harry and Louise, or John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, as part of the health-reform coalition, we might as well do it right.

With Obama's health summit behind us, there will now be a mad scramble for Democratic votes in the House and Senate to pursue the strategy that Obama should have used all along -- a Democrats-only bill relying on 51 votes in the Senate via the reconciliation procedure.

The problem is that Obama may have missed the moment. The prolonged, enervating battle for health reform, using a badly flawed bill, has scared off both conservative and liberal Democrats in both houses. The bill is politically toxic to legislators facing re-election, for good reason. The original formula, designed to enlist insurance industry allies, required a mandate to purchase insurance, diversion of Medicare funds, and unpopular taxes. Now that Obama has broken with the industry, an entirely different formula should be possible.

Alas, we are too far down the present road to advance single-payer in this legislative session. The president has done nothing to move public opinion in that direction, and has backed away even from the truncated version of it, the so-called public option.

I would put the odds at about one in three of Obama succeeding. Several Democrats who voted for the House-passed bill in November by the narrow margin of 220-215 have now defected, and several more are increasingly gun-shy. I don't much like this bill, but I still hope it passes so that the Republicans don't get rewarded for their relentless obstructionism.

Win or lose, the next great push should be for single-payer, assuming Democrats have a working majority again in foreseeable future. Given the collateral damage of Obama's strategy, that could be a long time coming.

Robert Kuttner is the author of the forthcoming book A Presidency in Peril (Chelsea-Green, March 2010). He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos.