Gut-Check Time For Congress Over Health Care Reform

11/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The time has come for Congress to step up to the plate over health care reform. President Obama's speech to the joint session put forth his plan -- an address "presented as a societal imperative and a test of the nation's character" according to one TV commentator. The stakes are that high. And all of us "regular Americans" should support the quest to rein in health care costs, and finally affect some real oversight to the country's health insurance companies.

This especially applies to those of us in Great Lakes State, where the number of people living without insurance is growing. According to a recent Census Bureau report, last year more than 1.3 million people in Michigan lacked coverage. That represents about 12 percent of the state's population, a jump from 10.5 percent without insurance in 2007, and the numbers could be far worse when the figures of those who recently lost their coverage due to unemployment are factored in.

President Obama laid out why reform is needed, what his plan will do, and why we as a nation should do this. He noted it has been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt (!) first called for reform, and that nearly every president and congress, Democrat or Republican, has tried to fix an inequitable scheme.

He argued that our broken health care system is placing "an unsustainable burden on taxpayers" threatening the performing and popular Medicare program. Aware Baby Boomers are aging and have the potential to overwhelm the system, Obama declared, "If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined. Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem."

To the chagrin of progressives, the president said he does not want a government-run, 'single payer' system like Canada's. He also said he does not want what many Republicans have been calling for, namely ending the employer-based system, forcing individuals to buy health insurance themselves. He said either would "represent a radical shift" that would disrupt the coverage most currently have.

Instead, Obama's reform would meet three basic goals: providing more security and stability to those who already have insurance; provide insurance to those who don't have any; and, slow the growth of health care costs. Most significantly, it would be paid for.

Under the president's plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Providers will not be allowed to drop anyone's coverage when they get sick or reduce it when then they need it most. They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage one can receive in a given year or a lifetime, and a limit will be placed on how much the companies can charge for out-of-pocket expenses.

By creating a new insurance exchange, those who don't currently have insurance will have an affordable option to get coverage. This marketplace will allow individuals and small businesses to shop for health insurance at competitive prices, because insurance companies will have the incentive to participate to gain access to millions of new customers. Larger groups of people will have the ability to get lower premiums from competing companies. This is free market capitalism at it best.

Despite recent criticism, the president clearly signaled he is no socialist: "I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business," he said. "I just want to hold them accountable."

What the plan won't do is set up "death panels" which supposedly would decide who is eligible for care. It will not provide benefits to illegal aliens, and will not fund abortions. Proponents of the massive and enormously wealthy health insurance companies have demonstrated they will tell any lie to maintain the status quo... one by the way, which has seen profits soar by the billions in the last couple of years.

Officials estimate the cost of the president's plan to be around $900 billion over the next ten years - less than we have spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and less than the Bush tax cuts provided to the wealthiest few Americans in 2002. Huge savings are expected with serious oversight eliminating fraud and waste, and Obama promises deep budgetary cuts if it fails to stay in the black.

The bill that ends up on the president's desk should contain a "public option" for people who cannot afford coverage, despite the noisy howling of Obama's opponents. This is especially crucial, should there be a mandate for health insurance coverage.

This issue was roundly debated during the campaign and change won. President Obama was elected with an overwhelming majority from those supporting his vision of the future. There is an angry minority making some ruckus, but that is what it is: a minority. The simple truth is, most people in America want health care reform and are welcoming the change they were looking for when they cast their ballots for Obama. Even a majority of doctors endorse change. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that 63 percent of physicians support a health reform proposal that includes both a public option and traditional private insurance.

Societies are judged by how they treat the least in their ranks. This is a gut-check for our country, a huge test whether corporate America runs this nation, or We the People do. Affordable, quality health care is as fundamental to humans as clean drinking water and reform is necessary. The president has shown it is not only the smart thing to do, but the right thing to do. We all should support him in his mission... and by doing so, the least of our brothers.

Rich Robinson is the Communications Director for the Western Washtenaw Democrats.