Health Care Can't Wait

By Edward M. Kennedy
Sunday, November 9, 2008

The story of America has been a journey toward being a fairer and more just nation. We have encountered many barriers along the way, and at times we have stumbled. But again and again, we have come together to surmount the obstacles in our path and realize more fully the promise of America.

Last month, the nation took another major step along this path, when Congress approved historic legislation to end discrimination in health care against the millions of Americans who struggle with mental illnesses. This new law ensures that illnesses of the mind are treated the same as illnesses of the body in insurance coverage.

It took more than a decade to enact mental health parity legislation. In the end, the stalemate was broken when insurance companies, employers and doctors all agreed with patients that the flawed system of mental-health-care insurance was intolerable. They finally sat down and reached an agreement that is now the law of the land.

Our success in achieving mental health parity after years of deadlock is a good omen for broad reform of our overall health-care system. And despite the current economic downturn, we must forge ahead with this urgent priority. The system is broken. And it's no longer just patients demanding change. Businesses, doctors and even many insurance companies are demanding it as well.

Another good omen occurred in 2006 in Massachusetts, when businesses and workers, insurance companies and patients, Democrats and Republicans came together on a practical solution for the state. Since that solution was enacted, Massachusetts has expanded coverage to more than three-quarters of the state's uninsured; the state now has far and away the nation's lowest proportion of medically uninsured people. As a result of the large increase in enrollment, insurance premiums have dropped significantly.

At the heart of the Massachusetts reform are two principles: Real help for lower-income families to make coverage more affordable and an innovative insurance "connector" program giving individuals access to high-quality, affordable health insurance. Employers are encouraged to continue to offer health insurance to their workers, and more than 150,000 residents have newly enrolled in good employer-based coverage since the reforms were enacted. The reforms demand responsibility from individuals, businesses and government alike, and the foundation on which the reforms rest is an effective set of protections against the denials of coverage that are so common elsewhere.

President-elect Barack Obama has issued a clarion call for action on health care. His practical and thoughtful proposals draw from our Massachusetts experience and add important measures to improve quality and reduce costs. His plan includes crucial investments in modernizing the use of information technology in health care. He calls for a new emphasis on prevention and wellness, because the best way to treat a disease is to prevent it from striking.

I'm sure opponents will dust off the same old slogans they have used to try to block every major advance in health care. They will call it "socialized medicine" and a "government takeover," just as they did when they opposed Medicare and the children's health program -- and they are just as wrong today as they were then. Such advances are no more "socialized medicine" than is the coverage available to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and every member of Congress, subsidized by the American taxpayer.

Opponents also argue that the cost would be too high and that any such reform must be deferred because of the economic crisis. I reject that argument. It is painfully obvious that our health-care system costs Americans too much, costs employers too much, denies too much needed care and leaves out too many Americans. The rising cost of health care is clearly contributing to the troubled economy and needlessly strains family pocketbooks. Even worse, these costs are expected to climb higher, more than doubling in the next 10 years. We can no longer afford not to act.

The cost will be substantial, but the need for reform is too great to be deflected or delayed. Our recent successes in passing mental health parity for the nation and achieving broad health reform in Massachusetts suggest that most Americans will agree.

Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. He is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

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