The American people are sending a message to Congress in 2009: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
This country has considered health care reform on numerous occasions over the past century. In the early 1900s, the Progressive Party took up the issue. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill would have achieved national health care reform. Building on that bill, President Harry Truman tried to address health care in the late 1940s. President Richard Nixon had a proposal in the early 1970s. And President Bill Clinton proposed the Health Security Act in the early 1990s. Yet today, despite these historic efforts, millions of Americans still struggle to obtain quality, affordable health care.
In the coming weeks and months, the Senate Finance Committee and the entire Congress will try, try again to pass comprehensive health reform. And this time, there is a better chance than ever to succeed.
This month, my good friend Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and I announced the path that the Finance Committee will take to move toward initial action in June on a health reform bill. The process that we put in place will cover health care reform in three tiers. In late April, the panel will review ideas to reform our health care delivery system to patients. In early May, we’ll look at policies to expand health care coverage. And in late May, we’ll examine financing and revenue options before scheduling a markup the next month.
For each issue, Grassley and I will hold a bipartisan roundtable, so Members and health policy experts can sit down and ask tough questions. Then we will hold meetings where Republicans and Democrats can sit down and “walk through— specific policy proposals together. A Finance Committee vote in June will be an important step toward full Senate consideration of a comprehensive health reform bill before the August recess.
I am already working with other leaders to meet this goal. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and I have set up regular meetings with those Senators who will play a role in health reform, to inform and oversee the process as our staffs work closely together to craft a bill. Our counterparts in the House have set a timetable similar to the Senate’s for action on health reform. President Barack Obama has made health reform a top priority. Close cooperation and coordination among all these parties will be key as there are a million moving parts and thousands of thorny questions that must be answered to achieve reform. The ease with which public concern has been stirred on just a couple of these issues — rational proposals to help patients and doctors make good decisions with more information on the clinical effectiveness of tests and treatments, and to consider capping the income exclusion on the very richest health benefit plans — shows just how important it will be for everyone to focus on the facts, keep talking and make sure that cool heads prevail. We’ll reach the right policy by working together.
Reaching the right policy is not just a laudable legislative goal; it’s an imperative from the American people. Forty-six million Americans are uninsured, and more and more Americans are being forced to drop their insurance as costs continue to rise. In the past eight years, average wages have increased only 20 percent, but the average cost of employer-sponsored health coverage has doubled.
High health care costs don’t just squeeze families. They also put U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace, and the problem is getting worse. Health care makes up more than 16 percent of our gross domestic product today, and by 2017, health care expenditures are expected to consume nearly 20 percent. Until we address this country’s broken health care system, our economy won’t recover or grow.
Addressing health reform will be the greatest legislative challenge of my 30 years in the Senate. Leaders on this issue have laid out an ambitious schedule. But we must work with the speed and precision that a problem of this magnitude requires. Americans have suffered the consequences of a broken health care system for decades. Health reform solutions are within reach. This time, we will succeed.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.