- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

In the aftermath of the November elections, many Republicans are seeking ways to repackage the Republican “brand.” In fact, merely “repackaging” the party will do little to improve its political fortune in the years ahead.

Rather, Republicans must follow the advice of Ronald Reagan, who said in 1977: “Our task now is not to sell a philosophy, but to make the majority of Americans, who already share that philosophy, see that modern conservatism offers them a political home. We are not a cult; we are members of a majority. Let’s act and talk like it.”

What does this mean in concrete terms for Republicans in 2006? Of course, with respect to the war against the terrorists it means doing whatever it takes to win. But on domestic issues, conservatives can offer a majority of Americans — young and old — a political home on the issue of health care.

Despite the grudging acceptance and often-outright rejection of the Medicare drug benefit Republicans should have embraced it as a success they supported: 80 percent of those covered are satisfied with the plan. The plan covers 22.5 million people who had no prescription drug coverage. Another 9 million poor seniors have their entire drug costs covered completely. Drug prices, which began to moderate in 2004 under a prescription-drug-card discount plan for seniors, began to fall further under the lash of competition. The cost of the program has been lower than expected — by a whopping $26 billion in 2006.

Taking pride in and defending the Medicare program against Democratic plans to rob seniors of drug choices will be the first test of Republican resolve to make health care an issue going forward. It must if it wants to seize the initiative on Medicare entitlements. For rather than being the party of higher taxes and service cuts, Republicans should offer seniors a better deal on Medicare: If you use high-quality medical services, stay healthy, get healthier, participate in disease-management programs, choose cheaper plans, you get a rebate. And Republicans should continue to push more dollars toward plans and physicians who try to prevent chronic illness, which is 75 percent of the cost of Medicare. The conservative approach to reining in Medicare spending should be by encouraging better health and personal savings.

Republicans must also deal with the concern most Americans have about the fear of losing their health insurance if they lose their job and the high cost individual coverage in many parts of the country. Increasingly, the workforce is made up of independent contractors, small business people, self-employed individuals and part-time workers who are either older workers ineligible for Medicare or single parents who can’t avail themselves to corporate health plans.

It’s not enough to attack a single-payer system that most Americans already oppose. Rather, conservatives must first stand behind the Health Care Choice Act introduced in both the House and Senate by Rep. John Shadegg and Sen. Jim DeMint. The act would allow consumers to buy health insurance anywhere in the country and end the protectionism that allows insurance companies to sell a policy of equal risk in New Jersey for $700 a month — less than half the price in Pennsylvania. As a Heritage Foundation policy brief about the bill notes: “With interstate commerce in health plans, large national health plans and large networks of providers would compete among themselves to offer greater choice, drive costs down, and improve quality and efficiency.”

Next, families without health-care insurance need more resources and those with coverage need more choices and the freedom to keep the coverage they like. Over the past decade, there has been bipartisan support for providing the uninsured with tax credits to purchase health insurance.

To this end, Medicaid, and money for state children’s health insurance programs up for renewal should be available as refundable tax credits that individuals and families could use to buy coverage. Federal grants should support the creation of purchasing pools that would convert the tax credits into cash. Purchasing pools could also give people the information about the cost and quality of each plan.

Giving people a sense of hope and peace of mind about health care is not just good politics. It responds to the need of most Americans. And doing so by giving them the opportunity to take control of health-care costs and to decide what type of health insurance they want and at what price reflects what the majority of Americans want and need as opposed to single-payer solutions of the left.

Republicans grudgingly rose to the occasion on Medicare. They must champion the cause of better health care in the future. Doing so is critical to regaining majority status in the years ahead.

Robert Goldberg is vice president for strategic initiatives for the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

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