Whatever You Do, Don’t Call It Reform

It has now been almost a full year since President Obama took office. In the historic 2008 general election, Americans sent Obama to the Oval Office and provided him with commanding majorities in both houses of Congress to allow him to fulfill his promises. Health care reform, a central part of his presidential campaign, soon became the core goal of his first-year domestic agenda.

Indeed, many Americans cast their votes for Obama with health care reform specifically in mind. At the outset, everything seemed relatively simple. We thought, or at least we hoped, that President Obama was going to get into office and push forward a health care bill that expanded care to more people and controlled the skyrocketing costs of health insurance coverage.

One year later, after a difficult legislative battle in Congress, President Obama has yet to sign a bill into law. Progress has certainly been made; both the House and the Senate have passed alternate versions of so-called health care reform legislation. The legislative process, however, has led to the removal of almost everything in the bill that could ever be described as actual reform.

The Senate passed a bill on Christmas Eve that was much less expansive than the bill passed a few months back in the House. Now, the two bills have to be reconciled with each other before anything can be sent to Obama. That process will take months and several key Senators have already said that anything more expansive than the current Senate bill will simply not make it through. In other words, the legislation is only going to get worse, not better.

So where are we now? The public option – a low-cost government insurance plan intended to control costs by competing with private companies – is totally gone. What we have left is essentially a government mandate that forces people to buy health insurance from private companies or face a financial penalty. Nothing will be done to force these private insurers to lower their rates; essentially, lower-income individuals and families without health coverage will be forced to buy into plans that they probably cannot afford. Just about the only good thing left is a new law that prohibits insurers from denying coverage to patients with preexisting conditions, although without a method to control costs, even that might turn out to harm people more than it will help them.

The current theory on Capitol Hill is that forcing everyone to buy coverage will open up tens of millions of new customers to these private insurers, which will allow them to lower their rates because of the higher volume of business. Time and time again, we have seen that an approach like this simply does not work in practice. The only way to get a private company to lower prices on a product is to compete with them; that is what the public option would have done, but it was cut from the agenda months ago.

Make no mistake – President Obama is going to claim the finished product as a major victory and a huge accomplishment for America. But it is absolutely nothing of the sort. The idea behind health care reform was to solve the problems created by our current system. The current plan does not solve those problems; in many ways, it actually makes them worse. Rather than change the system so that the public benefits, the bill that Obama will eventually sign will do everything it can to keep the system the same so that the private insurance industry will benefit. Just as he did with the banks, so he will do with the insurance companies. At this point, Obama has made it blatantly obvious that he puts the interests of big business ahead of the interests of the taxpayer. As much as it pains me to say this, “Change We Can Believe In” has turned into “Four More Years.”

Say what you will about whether or not health care reform is a good idea. Say what you will about the merits of a single-payer system, a public option, a government-supervised insurance exchange, increased regulation of the insurance industry or no reform at all. Regardless of where you stand on the issues, one thing is clear that everyone can observe. The health care debate in Congress has essentially served to illustrate the absolute inefficiency of our government and its inability to get anything of substance accomplished.

Charles Hicks is a third-year religious studies major. He can be reached at cbhicks@uci.edu.