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Democrats Must Fix Health Care Alone

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Early on as New York mayor, Ed Koch went to battle against entrenched interests that were bankrupting the city. The yelling and screaming was such that reporters asked him whether he was interested in having a second term. Koch responded that he didn't care about a second term, which was why he was going to have one. And he did.

Democrats should remember that as they go it alone on health care reform. It should be obvious by now that Republicans are bent on sabotage.

The last straw was Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's giving credence to the "death panel" nonsense. (Grassley was supposed to be one of the reasonable Republican negotiators.) Party leaders just shot down the idea of consumer-run insurance co-ops, designed to appease Republicans as an alternative to the public option.

Every compromise President Obama offered in the name of bipartisanship was read as a sign of weakness. For Republicans, sticking it to the Democrats trumps doing what's good for the country. The heck with them.

Reforming health care should be both a liberal and conservative mission. Securing medical coverage for all Americans is the liberal part.

The conservative part is containing the explosive rise in health-care spending, which fuels government deficits and hurts American business in the global marketplace.

Democrats will have to be both the liberals and the conservatives on health care. They must have been rolling in the aisles this week when Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, announced, "There is no way Republicans are going to support a trillion-dollar-plus bill."

Republicans already have. In 2006, their Medicare drug benefit legislation was projected to cost $1.08 trillion over 10 years. (This was just one benefit serving one slice of the population.) Last year, the estimate was reduced to a tad under $1 trillion, and Republicans rejoiced over the great deal they had struck.

There was nothing traditionally conservative about the Medicare drug benefit. Republicans were simply shoveling taxpayer dollars to their friends in the insurance and drug industry. This was crony capitalism, Chinese-style.

And the drug benefit was certainly not fiscally conservative.

The Bush administration and Congress had absolutely no thought of paying for the thing -- other than borrowing the money and passing the bill onto future generations.

After recent electoral beatings, Republicans repented and insisted they were returning to their core conservative principles. But now they're at it again, taking care of their pals in the health care industry.

Note how they demagogue every proposal to curb health care spending, even as the spiraling costs burden businesses, taxpayers and individuals alike. Their undying hostility to a public option is an example.

Republicans pounced on the public option as "government-controlled health care." The public option is a government plan that would compete with private insurers, forcing them to spend more on health care and less on executive compensation and dividends. It would help everyone who pays medical bills get more for their dollar.

No one is putting private insurers out of business. Reform would give them millions of new subsidized customers, many young and healthy.

Meanwhile, the public plan would have to rely on premiums (no extra funds from the Treasury). The playing field would be level.

Regional co-ops are not an awful idea, but they can't do as good a job moderating costs as the public option. With Republicans out the picture, Democrats can wholeheartedly support the better idea.

Democrats: Don't worry about November 2010 at the moment. Voters gave you the White House and commanding majorities in Congress to fix America's long-festering problems. Let Republicans go to their corner and holler, afraid that Democrats might get credit.

Democrats have the power to reform health care now and to do it right. They should use it.

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