A New Consensus on Universal Health Care
On the surface, it looked to be just another Washington news conference, part of the white noise of the political and policy process.
But this one was different. There, at the National Press Club, stood the president of the Business Roundtable, representing the country's largest corporations; the president of the Service Employees International Union, the country's most vibrant union and one of its fastest-growing; and the president of AARP, the formidable seniors lobby. They put aside their usual differences to deliver a clear, simple message to President Bush and congressional leaders of both parties:
We stand ready to give you the political cover you need for a centrist, bipartisan fix for a broken health-care system.
Or, if you refuse, we stand ready to embarrass you and run you out of office.
"Washington is behind where the rest of the country is," said Andy Stern, a labor leader. "Democratic leaders in Congress say this is not the time. The White House has said now is not the time. And we are saying, 'Now is the time.' "
Stern and his new friends are right about one thing: Something's going on.
A Republican governor of Massachusetts, working with Sen. Ted Kennedy and a Democratic legislature, hammered out a comprehensive reform plan last year. And last week, another Republican governor proposed a similarly bold plan for California.
Not coincidentally, both state plans conform roughly to a consensus that has been taking shape in Washington over the past two years, in behind-the-scenes negotiations among health insurers, hospitals, physicians, business and labor groups, drug companies and consumer groups such as Families USA. The first draft of their effort will be unveiled tomorrow. And while the "consensus" will fudge some of the most difficult issues in an effort to keep the coalition together, the outlines of a genuinely comprehensive reform plan are coming into focus.
What does that consensus look like?
It starts with universal coverage, accomplished either through a mandate on everyone to purchase basic health insurance or a mandate on all employers to offer it.
It includes subsidies for families with incomes up to 300 percent of the poverty level to help defray the cost of that insurance and the deductibles and co-payments that go with it.
It involves changes in tax law so that individuals who purchase health insurance enjoy the same tax benefits as those who get it as a fringe benefit at work.