Three former national leaders from both sides of the political spectrum agreed on two things Thursday: healthcare reform is needed and the solution may come through a bipartisan effort in Congress rather than the White House.
Former Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist, MD, former Senator John Breaux, and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson gave the keynote address at the America's Health Insurance Plans conference in San Francisco Thursday. The controversial nature of the healthcare debate was evident on the streets outside of the Moscone West conference center as protesters lined both sides of the street to support a single-payer healthcare system and protest health insurer profits.
While protesters chanted and held signs with anti-health insurance slogans, the three former Washington insiders debated the issue of universal healthcare out of earshot of the protesters' voices and bullhorns.
Frist said healthcare has taken a back seat to the issues of Iraq, gas prices, and immigration. "[The candidates for president] are not going to be talking healthcare. They are going to talk about energy the next four months," said Frist about the issue of rising gas prices.
In fact, he said national health insurance has dropped as an issue over the past 15 years. In 1993, Americans rallied behind the idea of a national health program as the new Clinton Administration sought to bring change to Washington. After that proposal died though, the vast majority of the American people has not shown interest in universal coverage, said Frist.
Frist suggested that healthcare reform is needed, but the first step is containing costs. The former Senate majority leader says studies show that higher healthcare costs means more uninsured Americans, which results in less care and quality of care. "Any reform to have universal coverage must face costs or that reform is doomed," said Frist.
Breaux said he is optimistic that bipartisan healthcare reform legislation could be effective, but both parties need to comprise. Too many Democrats think government is solely the answer while too many Republicans believe the solution is only in the private sector. Breaux said what is needed for healthcare reform is a combination of both.
He pointed to the Part D prescription drug benefits as a model to emulate. That private-public partnership has led to greater competition, innovations, and lower drug costs. Breaux said the program has contained costs while satisfying the vast majority of Medicare beneficiaries.
Thompson said health insurers have an opportunity to help fix the broken healthcare system. Thompson added that payers can play a key role in reform by implementing health and wellness programs as well as informational technology to improve transparency and reduce errors.
Thompson, who is senior advisor for The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, a Washington, DC-based group that researches and develops healthcare solutions, expects national healthcare legislation will become a reality next year. "I believe 2009 will be the biggest year and transformation in healthcare that any of us has seen," he said, though he doesn't think an individual mandate like the one in Massachusetts is the way to go.
Though all three speakers were optimistic that healthcare reform would happen during the next presidency, they also suggested that Americans shouldn't wait for Congress to take on the issue. Instead, a grassroots movement is needed. "I think Congress is going to do something, but don't wait," said Breaux. "This is not a problem that can be solved just by Congress … If you are just going to wait for Congress to get that done, we might not see if happen."
Les Masterson is senior editor for Health Plan Insider. He is blogging this week from America's Health Insurance Plans conference in San Francisco.