by John E. Mulligan
The Providence Journal
March 07, 2005
Imagine that American medicine were truly "a health-care system and not a sick-care system," says Rep. Patrick Kennedy, "and we were actually getting value for our health-care dollar" instead of rampant medical inflation and spotty health coverage.
Imagine that the right and the left, embodied by the former Republican House speaker and the Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, could agree on such lofty ideas and then set out to push some version of them through the legislative machinery in Washington.
In fact, Gingrich and Kennedy teamed up on such a project almost a year ago, and both of them say there are auspicious signs that bits and pieces of their grand scheme to retool health care can become law within a year.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress are so sharply divided over the current preoccupations of routine budget-writing and the far-reaching Social Security overhaul that there does not appear to be sufficient drive for big steps on health care.
But maybe the mere existence of the Gingrich-Kennedy venture - along with the seriousness of the health-care dilemma - means that a groundswell is on the horizon.
Here are some of their points: Kennedy notes, for example, that President Bush has begun to speak the same language that he and Gingrich have used, calling in his State of the Union speech for "improved information technology to prevent medical error and needless costs."
"Mike Leavitt gets this totally and is working on it," Gingrich said, referring to Bush's new secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, during a recent meeting with Washington reporters.
Gingrich was promoting his new book, "Winning the Future," a central premise of which is his declaration that reform of the medical system is "the most pressing and complex challenge of national policy" on the horizon.
Fixing health care "is a much bigger challenge than, say, Social Security," Gingrich added in a pointed reference to Bush's current domestic policy preoccupation.
That seems true enough. The coming wave of baby-boomer retirements will push the Medicare system more swiftly into insolvency than it will Social Security.
Medicare's new prescription-drug program, meanwhile, seems likelier to fuel health-care inflation than to quell it, because Bush failed to insist on tying the popular benefit to any cost-cutting regimen. The medical system's twin demons - cost inflation and the large portion of the population lacking health insurance - are in very good health.
Then there is Medicaid, the federal-state system of health care for poor people, which is the perennial top threat to fiscal soundness in the states. The nation's governors gave Bush an earful on that topic during their annual convention here last week, particularly since the president has proposed yet another round of Medicaid belt-tightening.
"I think we're going to get this bill" - or at least some portion of it - "because the politics of this bill are unassailable," Kennedy said. He plans, possibly this month, to reintroduce a new version of his bill, which went nowhere last year.
He can be reached by e-mail at jmulligan(at)belo-dc.com
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.