John Breaux is a former Democratic senator from Louisiana and served as Co-Chair of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. He and former Sen. Trent Lott formed the Breaux Lott Leadership Group in 2008, a lobbying group which represents healthcare interests.
A month after President Obama delivered a powerful call for Congress to pass comprehensive health reform this year, policymakers are moving forward on a plan that would guarantee access to affordable healthcare—a goal that has eluded Congress for decades.
The Senate Finance Committee, led by Sen. Max Baucus, has written a bill that can pass both houses of Congress with strong support. The Baucus proposal does not include a public insurance option, which many progressives favor, but it will give all Americans access to the best healthcare system in the world. Insurance industry abuses would be curbed—no more dropping patients when they get sick or charging exorbitant rates to people with pre-existing conditions.
No one would be allowed to opt out of coverage and shift the burden of paying for their care to the rest of us. But people wouldn't be left to fend for themselves in the industry-controlled market. Everyone would have access to a range of health insurance options through their employer or through state-based insurance exchanges. Plans would be affordable, thanks to tax credits for low-income families and small businesses. And insurance offered in the exchanges would cover comprehensive healthcare, including preventive care, wellness programs, dental coverage, mammograms, and prescription drugs.
Some senators will try to add new elements to the Finance Committee bill, but they should avoid weighing the bill down with amendments that will be costly and drive away moderate support. A public option may be appealing in theory, but if we can achieve the goals of universal access, choice, and affordability without a public option, why let this opportunity pass?
Similarly, some policymakers have indicated that they want to use health reform legislation to pursue other priorities. Some members support an amendment to change the way the Medicare prescription drug program works. But this is the wrong time to take up the issue.
It's instructive to remember how the Medicare prescription drug plan—or Medicare Part D—came into being. In 2003, a Republican Congress with some Democratic support enacted the Medicare Modernization Act, which integrated prescription drugs into the Medicare program. The basic concept of the program was to establish a privately delivered drug benefit with strong federal oversight. And it's working.
Seniors are happy with the prescription drug benefit. Eighty-four percent expressed approval in a poll this year by Medicare Today, a non-partisan group that I co-chair. Seventy percent say it's saving them money. And the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services indicate that the prescription drug program continues to offer choice and affordability—average monthly premiums are set to increase just $2, to $30, in 2010.
Just as important, costs to the government are substantially below projections. The Congressional Budget Office, Congress's official budget score keeper, lowered its projections for Part D for the fourth consecutive year. Indeed, the projected costs of the drug benefit for 2009 are 45 percent less than first projected.
With strong support from seniors and a manageable cost, why make unnecessary changes to Medicare? These efforts will only build opposition to the current health reform bill among seniors, a group that opponents of health reform have targeted with scare tactics.
Six years after Democrats and Republicans came together to create a strong public-private partnership to enhance Medicare, Congress can replicate the formula and strengthen America's health insurance system. The need is urgent, and members of both parties must make finishing this job a top priority.
In his address to Congress in September, President Obama said, "Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on healthcare."