- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

For 15 years, political strategists have cautioned politicians to beware of the health care issue. Now there has been an about-face. Lawmakers and stakeholders from across the political and policy spectrums are offering health care reform proposals and engaging in constructive dialogues on a daily basis.

Focusing on health care is good politics. More important, it is a strategic domestic priority for a nation coming to grips with an unprecedented financial crisis. With the economy struggling, employers are finding it even more difficult to provide coverage for their employees, individuals who have lost jobs are unable to afford health care, and health care costs are wreaking havoc on state and local budgets.

The good news is that consensus is emerging on a public-private framework for getting all Americans covered. That framework includes shoring up the safety net so that no one falls through, providing a helping hand to working families, creating new coverage options for small employers, and guaranteeing coverage for all regardless of age or health status. While enacting this framework into law will not be simple or easy, a uniquely American solution to covering the uninsured may, at long last, be within reach.

The more vexing question is whether the political will exists to contain the rising cost of medical care.

Everyone involved in this issue needs to recognize that health care spending is on a path that cannot be sustained — a path that threatens the health security of middle-income families, jeopardizes our competitiveness as a nation and crowds out other national priorities. Under current projections, within 10 years a staggering one-fifth of our economy will be devoted to health care.

The steep rise in health care spending might make sense if it made us a healthier, more-productive nation. Unfortunately, mounting evidence shows that spending more on health care generally does not result in better quality. In fact, research shows that many regions of the country with higher spending actually have poorer quality of care.

In the face of this urgent national crisis, we believe the country needs to rally around a very bold goal: slowing the future growth of health care expenditures by approximately 30 percent. Achieving this goal would reduce projected health care spending increases by $500 billion over five years — savings that could go a long way toward ensuring that every American has access to affordable, quality health care.

Congress should establish a public-private advisory group of respected health care experts charged with crafting a national strategy to achieve the 30 percent goal. This new advisory group would challenge all health care stakeholders to identify strategies to make their sectors more efficient, reduce unit cost increases and improve health care value. The advisory group would then create a policy road map on which Congress could take action. This model has served the nation well on issues ranging from Social Security to military-base reform.

Reducing health care cost growth is a massive undertaking, but there is no shortage of common-sense ideas. As a start, we need to focus on the critical link between health care costs and the quality of care. Practitioners should be rewarded for keeping people healthy, intervening early and coordinating care for patients with chronic diseases. New approaches to payment should be explored that reimburse physicians for treating a particular condition rather than for each individual service.

To create a 21st-century system, we also need to align health care treatments with the best medical practices and provide transparent information about which drugs, devices and technologies are safest, most effective and provide the best value. These reforms will empower consumers and provide more choices for clinicians. A comprehensive cost-containment strategy should also include streamlining administration, emphasizing prevention, discouraging unhealthy behaviors and reforming the medical liability system.

Reform of this magnitude will challenge every part of the health care system — including health plans — to innovate, perform better and be held accountable for results. Government cannot do it alone and neither can the private sector. It is a challenge that must be met in order to build a sustainable health care system that provides affordable coverage for all Americans.

Karen Ignagni is president and chief executive officer of America’s Health Insurance Plans. For more information, please visit www.americanhealth@solution.org.

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