Now, at least, there is clarity in the battle over health care reform. The election of a Republican to fill the Massachusetts Senate seat held for decades by the late Democrat Ted Kennedy leaves President Barack Obama with just one viable option. The president should end negotiations on a compromise, insist that House Democrats pass the Senate bill and declare victory.
The effort to pass comprehensive health care reform has come too far to fail now. The country is on the verge of insuring millions of Americans and pursuing efforts to slow the rise of medical costs without increasing the federal deficit. Giving up now would be a political defeat from which Obama may not recover, and it would put off health care reform for another decade or two. The current system is not sustainable, and the costs will only continue to strain businesses and deprive too many citizens of available, affordable care.
Look at the dramatic advances the Senate bill offers:
• Covers 31 million uninsured Americans.
• Partially covers the so-called doughnut hole in the Medicare prescription drug coverage for seniors.
• Bans health insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions and setting annual and lifetime caps on benefits.
• Extends the time young adults may remain covered by their parents' insurance policies to age 26.
• Sets limits on how much money insurers can keep for marketing, other business expenses and profits.
This is not some radical plan devised by socialists, as its harshest critics contend. It is not a government takeover of health care. It is a pragmatic approach that recognizes the role of private insurers, preserves consumer choice and reduces the federal deficit by $132 billion over the next 10 years.
The Senate bill has its flaws, of course. For example, there are concerns that a tax on the most expensive health plans could reach too deeply into the middle class. There should be a national insurance exchange where the uninsured would shop for coverage rather than dozens of state exchanges. And Nebraska's special Medicaid deal should be wiped out. But many of the bill's key provisions do not kick in for several years, and there would be time to make improvements.
The loss of one Senate seat in a special election, no matter how politically intriguing, should not derail health care reform. There were other reasons for the populist revolt in Massachusetts besides health care, including concerns about the economy and an uninspiring Democratic candidate who foolishly took her election for granted. The only reason the outcome affects health care and the fate of other major legislation is that Senate Democrats will be one vote short of the 60 needed to end Republican filibusters. The majority of the Senate and the House support health care reform, and they should not be held hostage by the minority on a procedural maneuver.
Obama suggested Wednesday that Democrats pursue a scaled-down version of health care reform that could draw Republican support. But Republicans are in no mood to cooperate, and the president cannot afford to wait for detente when he must refocus his attention on jobs and the broader economy. He should persuade House Democrats to approve the Senate bill and sign it into law. Otherwise, the president risks squandering an opportunity for sweeping health care reform that may not come around again for decades.