- The Washington Times - Friday, May 2, 2008

Our health care system delivers the highest-quality and most advanced health care in the world. Nevertheless, the cost of health care is soaring, and the number of uninsured Americans continues to grow. American families and businesses, especially small businesses, are feeling the pinch.

Some would suggest that an election year is not the time to address health care reform. But health care costs do not stop rising during election years, and American families and small businesses continue to struggle. Let’s not wait another year to start tackling this problem.

Much of the economic anxiety that Americans feel right now is a direct result of increasing health care costs. Middle-class Americans are working harder and longer, yet their salaries are not keeping pace. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently released data showing that the share of employee compensation going to wages has fallen in recent years, while the share going to health care continues to increase.

This is not a worker-vs.-employer dispute either: American businesses are becoming less competitive in the global marketplace because of rapidly escalating health insurance costs. Consider that Starbucks now spends more on health care each year than on coffee, and General Motors spends more on health care than on steel for its cars. And while the high cost of health care has a negative effect on the profits and competitiveness of large companies like General Motors, it can cripple small businesses, which is one reason why many small businesses are unable to even consider providing health care coverage to their employees.

As health care costs continue to rise, the competitiveness of American companies will continue to fall. Real health care reform must address the challenges facing the businesses that employ Americans as well as the costs facing individuals and families. The key to reform is to provide every American with access to quality, affordable care that protects the doctor-patient relationship. Here are four major principles that should form the basis for reform to help achieve the goal of having every American insured:

1) Access and choice: All Americans should have access to the doctor, hospital and health care plan they want and deserve; and no Washington bureaucrat should deny that right.

2) Affordable coverage: The best health care in the world is worthless if Americans cannot afford it. We will drive down costs by giving Americans control over their own health care choices. We will make sure patients have the information they need to make good decisions; to guarantee transparency and vigorous competition that benefits patients; and to hold the entire health care system accountable to patients’ needs.

3) Quality care and prevention: We should strengthen health care by promoting consistent, dependable quality and the principle of prevention. We will harness the powerful promise of advanced research and modern technology to create innovative new treatments and breakthrough cures, promote wellness and empower consumers with accurate, comprehensive information on quality health care available to them.

4) Personal ownership and security: All Americans should have the opportunity to own and control their health care coverage and have the freedom and flexibility to take it with them when they change jobs. Hard-working Americans deserve the peace of mind to know that the care they need will be the care they receive and that their financial security will be protected from catastrophic events. Americans will achieve this security, and will receive better care, if the health care system is highly personalized and guarantees patient control.

We hope our Democratic colleagues will also embrace these principles and work with us to enact reforms this year. We could realistically pass bipartisan legislation this year to encourage the use of electronic medical records for all patients and electronic drug prescriptions for Medicare patients and to reduce fraud and abuse in Medicare. Unfortunately, many of the Democrats’ proposals on health care reform endorse more of what is not working — mainly more government control.

Republicans are not interested in pursuing the same tired proposals for government-run health care. We want to take advantage of new technologies and innovations to lower the cost of health care and make insurance more affordable for Americans. By implementing the four principles discussed above, we can create a system where every family has access to a health plan that fits its needs and where patients and doctors — not government bureaucrats — are in charge of health care decisions. We can and should do this without driving up the cost of health insurance by piling on federal mandates and restrictions.

American families and businesses have struggled long enough under the weight of rising health care costs. It is time for us to undertake real reform of our health care system.

Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, is a member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, who also serves on the committee, is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

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