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Baucus: We Must Reform Health Care Now

Ten years ago, Dan DeJong, a fourth-generation rancher from just outside Libby, Mont., was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Dan worked hard all his life, but when faced with massive bills to treat his cancer, Dan and his wife, Pat, had no choice but to sell the family’s land and apply for Medicaid and food stamps.

When Dan passed away, Pat had to move just to find affordable housing. She still had no health insurance, but this time there was no ranch to sell if she developed health problems of her own.

The DeJongs’ story is all too common. Today, the average American family pays more than $13,000 a year for health care coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. If we do nothing, that figure will skyrocket to more than $30,000 a year within 10 years.

At the same time, the small businesses that drive our economy could see their health care costs double. Businesses will have to shed jobs and cut benefits just to stay afloat.

For hardworking Americans who can’t afford coverage, too often the only option is to postpone health care until the last possible moment. Unfortunately, that’s when health care is the most expensive.

Last week, the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems reported an 18 percent jump in the number of uninsured people coming to emergency rooms for costly, last-minute care since the recession began. Uninsured Americans seeking nonemergency services jumped 15 percent as well. Hospitals must treat every patient who shows up for emergency care. And dollars spent treating patients with no insurance and no means to pay must be made up through higher costs on those who do have insurance — a “hidden tax” of more than $1,000 per year on families and businesses that everyone in Montana and across the country pays. For this reason, simply covering more uninsured Americans will help drive costs down.

But expanding coverage alone will not control costs. We must also change the way we pay doctors and hospitals. We must provide incentives for better quality and better outcomes — rather than just paying for each service and procedure, which incentivizes more services and more procedures, regardless of whether they are necessary or beneficial to patients.

If we do nothing, even some individuals and families who can pay for insurance today may not be able to find it. Without reform, anyone with a pre-existing condition can be denied coverage when they need it most.

That’s why we wrote a bill that will confront our health care crisis head-on.

We worked hard to craft a bill that reduces costs, improves quality, insures the uninsured and shrinks the deficit. Our bill is the product of more than a year’s worth of bipartisan negotiations — more than 60 hours in the Finance Committee alone. While it is unfortunate that we did not reach a formal bipartisan agreement, the bipartisan principles we agreed on are very much the foundation of our bill.

Our bill will create exchanges where individuals and small businesses can pool together to spread their risk and increase their buying power, the same way large corporations do today. Our bill will prohibit insurance companies from canceling policies when people get sick and end discrimination based on sex or pre-existing conditions. Our bill will provide tax credits to make insurance affordable for hardworking Americans. In all, our bill will reduce the deficit by $132 billion in the first 10 years and as much as $1.3 trillion in the decade that follows.

We have worked for years to reach this point, but now some people are saying we should scrap our reform plan entirely.

Scrapping reform is simply a mistake. Since Congress failed to enact health care reform in the 1990s, health care premiums have risen eight times faster than wages. If we don’t reform our health care system now, premiums will increase 84 percent in the next seven years.

Our bill gives peace of mind to 30 million Americans who currently live without health insurance. We can’t afford to squabble over politics or procedure. We must pass health reform, and we must do it soon.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is chairman of the Finance Committee.

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