Health-care reform wounded, but still alive

President Obama said that "people in Massachusetts have spoken" and that Scott Brown must be part of the process. (CHARLES DHARAPAK / Associated Press)


Democrats’ problems in trying to pass health-care reform remind you of that old saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
And it got weaker with last week’s Massachusetts election that saw Republican Scott Brown win a U.S. Senate seat that had been held by Democrats for more than half a century.
The election wasn’t a referendum on health-care reform. But all the horse-trading and partisan sniping associated with that issue, as well as its cost, played into voters’ mood for change.
President Obama understood that. “The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office,” he said. Obama rightly cut off talk of trying to jam reform through Congress before Brown takes his seat, even though his election means Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
So, now the question is can reform still be achieved. The answer is a resounding yes. It may not be as ambitious as originally sought, but it was good to hear Obama say that he “won’t just do what’s safe” because “the things that are non-controversial end up being the things that don’t solve the problem.”
In the coming debate, Congress must not abandon the basic goal to reduce health-care costs while improving the quality of medical care. Unfortunately, though, the aim of expanding coverage to all Americans most likely will have to occur down the road.
At the least, scaled-back reform should prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing illnesses, allow young adults to stay on their parents’ policies, aid individuals and small businesses in paying premiums, and encourage Medicare payments for quality care instead of sheer volume.
Conferees from the Senate and House were making progress 10 days ago on resolving the differences between competing overhaul proposals, but that seems to matter little now.
GOP senators who have refused to support any meaningful proposals are using Brown’s victory to dig their heels in even deeper.
An agreement with House members would likely require some concession to their more progressive ideas, like a Medicare-style plan for working adults to compete with private insurers. But facing such a vote, some Democratic senators might bolt, as they cast a wary eye on their own chances for reelection in November.
The political dynamic has indeed changed, but the imperative to fix the health system remains.
There are nearly 47 million Americans without health insurance, and most didn’t vote in Massachusetts. They still need health-care reform. So do the millions of working adults who are just a pink slip away from joining the growing ranks of the uninsured.
Thousands of U.S. businesses are clamoring for relief from insurance costs as a means to preserve their competitiveness and spur the overall economy. They still need health-care reform.
And while some who owe their livelihoods to the $2.5-trillion health-care system won’t admit it, that colossus will collapse under its own weight without meaningful reform that assures greater access and quality.
Democrats and Republicans alike will have some explaining to do if they drop the ball now. Americans still need health-care reform, but they want assurances that the remedy is genuine relief.