For Americans anxious about the details of health care reform, President Barack Obama provided some clear answers Wednesday night. The president known for his soaring rhetoric responded to the scare tactics of summer with plain talk before a joint session of Congress. He promised to protect Medicare, avoid increasing the federal deficit and slow the rising cost of health care. Now Congress should get back to work.
"We did not come here to fear the future,'' Obama said. "We came here to shape it.''
The president embraced key provisions in bills that already have passed several congressional committees:
- Virtually all Americans would be required to have health insurance, and there would be federal help for those who cannot afford it.
- Insurers could not deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, cap annual or lifetime coverage, or drop policyholders who get seriously ill.
- New health insurance exchanges would be created where individuals and small businesses could shop for coverage at competitive prices.
- Most employers would be required to help pay for the cost of covering their workers or pay a fee, and most small businesses would be exempt from the requirements.
Those are provisions that would benefit all Americans, not just the 47 million who do not have coverage. This effort is about much more than extending coverage to those who don't have it. It's also about making coverage more available and affordable for families who have health insurance - a fact lost in the partisan arguments and overheated public hearings of August.
Too much focus has been on the creation of a government-sponsored health plan, which Obama supported. As he explained, the idea is to hold private insurers accountable, not drive them out of business. But too may Republicans mislabel it as socialized medicine and too many Democrats insist it must be part of any package. There may be a better way, including making the public option available only if targets for coverage and costs are not met. But those who do not embrace the public option, including Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, should propose an alternative to force more competition among private insurers.
Labor Day is in the rearview mirror, and it is time for Congress to move forward. A bipartisan group of six senators has so far failed to reach agreement, and many Republicans are not interested in reasonable compromise. Obama left the door open for more negotiation and even hinted at the prospect of medical liability reforms long sought by Republicans. But he warned, "Know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it.''
The president waited long enough - perhaps too long - for Congress to flesh out the details. He clarified his own thoughts, although more detail about paying for the reforms would have been useful. Now Democrats who control Congress should move forward with health care plans and prepare for final negotiations - with or without the Republicans. Floridians cannot afford to wait another generation for available, affordable health care.