Health-Care Reform's Many Benefits Include Peace of Mind

By Kathleen Sebelius
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

As the political debate about how to pay for and pass health reform grows louder and more contentious, we shouldn't lose sight of the reason we're even having this conversation: We have a huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the lives of all Americans, insured and uninsured alike.

Health insurance is fundamentally about peace of mind. If you have good insurance, you don't have to worry about an accident or sudden illness. You know that whatever happens, you and your family will be taken care of.

We can't eliminate all disease. But through health reform, we can give every American access to quality, affordable health insurance so that if they do get sick, they have the best chance possible of getting better without bankrupting their families.

The current health-care system gives insurance companies all the power. They get to pick and choose who gets a policy. They can deny coverage because of a preexisting condition. They can offer coverage only at exorbitant rates -- or offer coverage so thin that it's no coverage at all. Americans are left to worry about whether they'll get laid off and lose their insurance or wake up from surgery with a $10,000 bill because they didn't read the fine print on their policy.

By giving Americans choices, health reform will switch the roles. Americans will get peace of mind and insurance companies will start getting nervous. They will know that if they don't deliver a great value, their customers will flee. So they will start offering better coverage.

Reform will close the gaps in our current system. When my two sons graduated from college, I had mixed feelings. I was incredibly proud of their accomplishments, but I dreaded the fact that they would lose their health insurance when they left school. The peace of mind that comes with health reform means college graduations can go back to being the celebrations they are supposed to be.

Consider the entrepreneur sitting at her desk, dreaming about her idea for a new business. Right now, many entrepreneurs are paralyzed by our fractured health insurance system. They know that if they leave their job, they might not be able to get insurance for their families. So they, and their innovations, stay put. Health reform means unleashing America's entrepreneurs to chase their big ideas.

Without reform, we will miss out on these benefits. And our health-care system will still be a fiscal time bomb. Recent estimates indicate that by 2040, health-care costs will eat up 34 percent of our gross domestic product. By comparison, the entire federal budget today is just 20 percent of our GDP. By acting now, we have the chance to slow health-care costs in a way that doesn't slash benefits or reduce care. Instead, we can make investments in prevention, wellness and health information technology that will allow the health-care system to deliver incredible results at prices we can all afford. Imagine a system in which your doctor spends as much time trying to keep you healthy as treating you when you're sick, in which you and your doctor have all the information you need to choose the treatments that work best for you, in which you never have to fill out the same paperwork twice. Health reform is the first step in that direction.

President Obama and I are working closely with Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate and health-care experts to make sure we get the details of health reform right. But we can't let the details distract us from the huge benefits that reform will bring. The urgency behind reform has nothing to do with the schedule of Congress and everything to do with the needs of the American people.

Nor should we let ourselves be distracted by attacks that try to use the complexity of health reform to freeze Americans in inaction. We've learned over the past 20 years that "socialized medicine" and "government-run health care" are code words for "don't change anything." With some insurers raising premiums by more than 25 percent and 14,000 people losing their health insurance every day, Americans want to hear something more from their leaders than "wait and see" and "more of the same." People have enough to worry about these days. Americans deserve the peace of mind that only health-care reform can provide.

The writer is secretary of health and human services.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company