This was the official question that nearly 200 of the world's foremost health-care experts, physicians and scholars attempted to answer at the 2009 Aspen Health Forum, which wrapped up Monday in Aspen, Colorado, after four days of speeches, panel discussions and idea-sharing sessions.
As Congress prepares to break for its annual August recess, the Aspen event couldn't have come at a better time. The Obama administration, without a broad consensus on how to go about addressing the nation's health care woes, is working tirelessly to ensure that the president's top domestic policy priority doesn't slip through the cracks. House Democrats, led by Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.), are still hoping to take a $1.5 trillion bill to the floor before the end of the month, igniting concerns among the Blue Dog Coalition about the need to do more to cut costs. Republicans, meanwhile, are at odds with one another over whether (and how) to suggest an alternative to recent Democratic plans.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, made news last week by becoming the first Senate Republican to take himself out of the debate entirely.
So what came out of the Aspen Health Forum?
First, a call for greater focus on cost control, innovation and chronic disease prevention. Among the forum's speakers were Dr. John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society; Tom Daschle, former Senate Majority Leader; Billy Tauzin, President and CEO of The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA); Dr. Deepak Chopra, director of education at the Chopra Center; Goldie Hawn, actress and founder of The Hawn Foundation; and Bjorn Lomborg, adjunct professor of the Copenhagen Business School.
With growing concerns about the impact of any health-care reform proposal to R&D and innovation, the debate over how to preserve quality while covering 46 million Americans who currently don't have insurance was front and center.
"We will not succeed if we don't bend the cost curve substantially," Daschle told the attendees.
Second, a reminder that without bi-partisan consensus, health reform will likely not come to fruition this year. While the forum didn't set out to produce a legislative solution, attendees expressed doubt that draft proposals (Democratic and Republican) will pass in their current form.
Third, the reappearance of ideas that seem to have fallen off the radar. Accelerating the adoption of health information technology, arguably one of the most obvious and nonpartisan elements of 21st century health care, was a primary talking point in almost every session. So was the need to reduce waste, inefficiency and unnecessary medical tests. Even a panel on "the importance of being playful" led by Deepak Chopra and Goldie Hawn drew one of the highest turnouts of the forum.
Will Aspen have an impact on the larger debate or blend into the hundreds of health-care conferences taking place across the country? While the optimist in me is hopeful, we'll probably have to wait until September or October to find out.
Sean Donahue is Senior Vice President of The Herald Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs and strategic communications consulting firm.
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