WASHINGTON: Keep close eye on health care

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama barely delivered his congressional speech last week before the critics came out to bludgeon to death his health care reform plans, which have yet to be fully formulated.

Even before they could be officially appointed, the president’s picks of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for secretary of health and human services and Nancy-Ann DeParle for director of the White House Office of Health Reform were criticized by some pro-life and consumer advocates, respectively.

While the breathless E.R. spin on both sides of the thorny health care issue will be whipped up in the coming days and weeks, Americans will do well to pay close attention to which lobbying campaigns are being funding by whom and for what agenda.

“There is something good and bad for everybody on every side,” said an associate who works for a health care company and asked not to be named. “We have to wait and see the details” of the “massive plan” by Mr. Obama to “provide a better health care system for everybody with better outcomes.”

First, this health care worker said, “We have to bring health care costs down,” noting that by 2017, health care costs will have grown to 20 percent of the gross domestic product if the necessary reforms are not made. And that will “continue to drive employers out of business.”

Despite Mr. Obama’s bold warnings, private health insurers are already geared up to throw millions in advertising to maintain their stronghold on the industry, in which an estimated 45 million Americans are uninsured.

However, Ellen R. Shaffer, a co-director of the San Francisco-based Center for Policy Analysis, who focuses on health policy, is hoping that public service and consumer advocates representative of her organization “just get a seat at the table and have our voices heard” in the debate.

With so much spin and people already attacking, “it makes it hard for people like me who have serious reservations” about how the Obama administration’s health care reform will be implemented, she said. But at the same time, Ms. Shaffer recognizes it as “groundbreaking, exciting and important.”

Consumers need health care plans that “do not divert money to profits, don’t waste money on administrative costs and doesn’t try to weed out people who are not healthy,” she said.

Ms. Shaffer offers, as an intriguing and novel approach, the expansion of Medicare to larger sectors of the population. That program is popular with patients, mainly seniors and the disabled, and runs relatively efficiently with lower costs.

Her policy center sponsors its own campaign, “EQUAL,” which stands for “equitable, quality, universal and affordable” health care. Ms. Shaffer said the fundamental conditions for controlling health care costs are to ensure that everybody is covered and “wringing out administrative waste.”

Private insurers spend more money on administrative costs attempting to deny benefits to increase their profits, she contends. As a result, “hospitals have more people working on administrative duties than [they] have providing care.” The administrative costs for public health care providers is 2 percent to 3 percent, compared with the 25 percent to 30 percent for private health care providers.

Ms. Shaffer warns that the Obama team will be “in an environment where private industry has a lot of control over the message and over the policy.” The question becomes: “Will they be accommodating to the American public or to the industry?”

Consumers need to “look at who’s driving the agenda,” she added. “There will be a lot of red herrings thrown out, but they are not based in fact.”

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