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On Hype and Healthcare Reform: This Too Shall Pass

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Ah, here we go again: more lobbing of scary statistics into the healthcare debate and more lobbying of the American people through sensationalizing headlines. We’ve got all the makings of another high political drama in front of us: Republicans Versus Democrats, Insurance Companies Versus Everyday People, Good Versus Evil. If only life were so simple. I’ve been somewhat surprised by more than 100 people emailing me today asking some version of: “Will that study everyone’s talking about kill the healthcare reform bill?”  To answer simply: I don’t think so, and I certainly hope not. And I believe that, like all of the other manufactured controversies provided for our viewing pleasure, this too shall pass.


That study everyone’s talking about—or at least that the media is using as a means to turn otherwise boring policy debates into the latest conflict of the American Partisan Wars reality TV show—is a report put out by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) that was prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers. I just read the whole thing. No, I didn’t understand it all. And, no, the world didn’t end. But I got the gist of it.


On the one hand, the timing of this report from AHIP is suspicious on the eve of the Senate finance vote.  On the other hand, there are also some very valid concerns and issues in the report about the weak individual mandate in the Senate finance bill that would likely lead many people to game the system. There is a very real risk of many folks just paying the small fine for not being insured until they get really sick, and then at the last minute, buying into insurance only when they need it. This flies in the face of the whole purpose of insurance, messes up the risk pool and economics, and is unfair to everyone else who plays by the rules.


It’s not the report that bothers me so much as the reporting of the report by the media and politicians who are using it to elevate the national blood pressure, but not the level of discourse and understanding of these complex issues. I’ve seen headline after headline claiming that families would face “dire” and “dangerous” rising healthcare premiums. This is the argument being used as an emotional cudgel by many Republican Senators to beat back healthcare reform. But the report shows an average of $400 per family per year higher costs because of the legislation, assuming you believe their numbers, which, while challenging for some, is hardly potentially bankrupting for the masses. Still, many Democratic Senators are using this report to play on the too-easy anti-insurance-company sentiment that most Americans already have. Come on, this is just too easy of a target—vilifying insurance companies as all bad and greedy is hardly fair, accurate, or productive.


But it’s the war language that appears in these articles and political speeches—“Opens Fire” and “Fire Back” and “Defends” and “Battles Lines” and even “Go To War”—that concerns me the most. This language just ratchets up the emotions and partisan fighting that keeps us from finding consensus and common sense. It’s no wonder that a few people are erupting at town halls when we’re living in a media soup of extremist rhetoric and emotion-laden language that makes us feel as if we are at war with one another. Can we declare “peace” and start acting as a country instead of a war between the parties? Is it possible to move healthcare reform forward without pitting citizen against citizen, party against party, industry against individual, and playing to our basest fears and emotions?


So on the eve of the Senate finance committee vote, I am trying to cut through the emotional ploys and war mongering mindset that surrounds us. And I am trying to keep the following three things in mind:


1) Read and Think For Ourselves: The partisan political climate is so toxic in Washington right now that you have to read everything with some suspicion. Many Republicans seem only to want to kill healthcare reform—and anything else that might make President Obama and the Dems look good—at any cost. Many Democrats seem only to want to pass a healthcare reform bill—literally at any cost, financially—just so they can declare “mission accomplished” and victory over the GOP. I’m new to this whole politics thing, so I don’t know whether the current partisanship is worse than usual or about par for the course. But regardless, it’s a shameful waste of human energy, intellect, and time. Each party now acts in perpetual “election battle mode” with polling, pundits, and political calculus driving decisions instead of finding consensus and common sense ideas that are good for the whole country. So…be wary…and beware what you read and hear…since the truth is most often somewhere between two hyped up extremes. We have to try to find, read, and interpret these reports and bills for ourselves, instead of relying upon pundits and politicians to tell us how to feel. Perhaps the high drama of politics is best treated as “reality TV”—entertaining fictional conflicts, if you are into that kind of thing, or else just change the channel.


2) Costs Will Likely Rise: It’s hard to imagine that healthcare costs won’t rise for most individuals and institutions, at least for the next several years. I don’t see how you add all or many of the uninsured to the system and continue to deal with the economic impacts of the age wave without healthcare costs continuing to rise. These bills, if successful, will help to “bend the cost curve,” as they say in Washington—which is to say, over time they will help reduce the rate at which healthcare costs go up. But the costs will still go up, and it’s unlikely that costs will actually go down (they almost never do). It’s unlikely we can achieve meaningful reform without many individuals and institutions having to pay more in the near term (and perhaps the long term). The ROI for healthcare reform will be measured in decades, not quarters, and will only begin to impact the national bottom line when we’ve truly adopted more preventive care, payment reform for quality over quantity, and more personal responsibility for health and wellness in our culture. These are long term investments with hopefully long term gains….which isn’t very satisfactory for our instant gratification culture.


3) This Too Shall Pass: Today’s brouhaha (what a fun word to write!) about the AHIP report is just another variation on a theme that has played out throughout this healthcare reform debate. This controversy, like all the others, shall pass. As the Senate finance committee votes tomorrow…and as the five versions of healthcare reform bills in Congress start to get mashed together over the next few weeks…there will be many more distractions planted and emotional buttons pushed. They, too, shall pass. And I believe that, in the end, so too, shall some version of healthcare reform pass. Even though it is hard to realize in the midst of the war mongering rhetoric that pits us against one another—that makes this reform effort feel like a battle—there is far more commonality and consensus underneath all of this hype. After all, we’re all mortal, we’re all aging, and we’re all in need of quality healthcare. Since we, too, shall pass, it would behoove us to spend our energies leaving something meaningful behind—like a quality healthcare system—for those who come after us.


Comments are welcome.  please post to: http://blogs.intel.com/healthcare/ 


NOTE:  ERIC DISHMAN'S 'HOME BLOG' PAGE HAS MOVED TO:  blogs.intel.com/healthcare.