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Access, Cost, Quality Rule Agenda

The more things change, the more they remain the same. As we approach 2008, our health care agenda boils down to three continuing, if not perpetual, questions: Who in the United States has health care, how much are we paying for it, and what are we getting for our money? In short, it’s time for Congressional leaders to again address the critical issues of expanding access to care, lowering the cost of care and improving the quality of care.

Elevating the current quality of care will depend largely on our ability to empower patients, providers and health care purchasers to make good choices. To this end, better information and increased access to it are essential. Consumers and patients should have access to their own health records, and patient privacy must be vigorously protected. Improved technologies will be a central component of consolidating, sharing and securing health information.

As of now, our national health care sector is severely overburdened by technological inconsistencies. Too many doctors and nurses lose precious time searching for patient health histories; too many providers are forced to sort through piles of paperwork to properly manage health data; and, all too often, cutting-edge research takes years to reach and be applied in medical practices. With advances in information technology, we can quickly and easily supply patients and providers with critical information, saving time and even lives. The corporate sector has embraced and capitalized on the benefits of the information revolution, and Congress must provide incentives for the health sector to follow this lead.

In addition to improving access to information, we must expand access to health care services and therapies. Without question, our health care system is one of the best in the world; but, unfortunately, 46 million Americans do not have access to it. It is nothing short of a disgrace that today, in the wealthiest country in the world, nearly 9 million children are without health coverage. Most of these kids are in families with working parents who have jobs that do not provide insurance, and too many of these families cannot afford to buy coverage on their own. The staggering number of uninsured kids is especially frustrating in light of the fact that they are so inexpensive to cover. It costs less than $3.50 a day — less than a Starbucks Frappuccino — to provide a child with health insurance.

We can and must do more to provide our children with the care they need. I am deeply disappointed that, despite hours of constructive negotiation, Congress failed to override the president’s veto of legislation to strengthen the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. This program has given millions of children access to affordable health care coverage and, for the past decade, has served as a testament to what Congress can accomplish when we are willing to put partisanship aside and put our children first. Next year, I hope we can find a way to work together to provide quality, affordable health care coverage to 10 million of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

Though the focus largely has been on covering children this year, I also hope we can find a way to provide health care to more adult citizens — whether they are temporarily or chronically uninsured, living in rural areas with limited services or residing in inner cities where access to physicians is often deficient. To do so, we must make public more information on treatment options and require greater transparency by providers regarding medical outcomes, quality of care, costs and prices.

In the health care debate, the one thing we all can agree on is the fact that costs are out of control. Lowering costs is the best way to stop the erosion of affordable health insurance, save Medicare and Medicaid dollars, protect private health benefits for retirees, and allow our companies to effectively compete around the world. At a time when companies such as Starbucks and General Motors spend less, respectively, on coffee beans or steel than on health care, it’s easy to see how skyrocketing costs are destroying businesses and jeopardizing America’s global competitiveness. Just as we must lower costs for corporations and small businesses, we must address consumer budgets by bringing down the cost of prescription drugs in safe ways. Additionally, we must foster the development of a pathway for safe, cheaper generic versions of drugs and biologic pharmaceuticals.

I’ve been in Congress for more than a half-century, long enough to have learned that good ideas, good works and, most importantly, good results don’t come out of thin air. They come from collaborative thinking and a commitment to reasonable compromise. Strengthening our health care system in a way that improves quality, increases access and lowers costs is no easy task. But, for the 110th Congress, it’s a critical responsibility.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.