An open letter to Harry Reid on healthcare costs

If we can't get costs under control, we've blown it


Robert Reich
November 13, 2009 11:14PM (UTC)

Dear Senator,

I know you're in a tough spot. It would be bad enough if you only had to get Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln on board, but anyone who has to kiss Joe Lieberman's derriere deserves a congressional medal of honor.

But Harry, you really need to take on future healthcare costs. The House bill fails to do this. The public option in the House bill is open only to people without employer-provided health insurance. That will be too small a number to have bargaining clout to get good deals from drug companies and medical providers. And it will mainly attract people who have more expensive medical needs, which is why the Congressional Budget Office decided it would cost more than it would save.

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You also know a public insurance option that's open to everyone would cut future health costs dramatically by imposing real competition on private for-profit insurance plans. That's why the private insurers hate the idea. Even if states were allowed to opt out of this robust public option, the big states would almost certainly opt in, giving it the scale needed to negotiate great deals from drug companies and medical providers. This would put pressure on any state that opted out because its citizens would soon discover they're paying far more.

In addition to the House's weak public option, the deals the White House and Max Baucus made with the drug companies and the American Medical Association will force Americans to pay even more. If, on the other hand, Medicare were allowed to negotiate lower drug prices, biotech drugs weren't granted a 12-years monopoly, and doctors had to accept Medicare reimbursements in line with legislation enacted years ago, Americans would save billions.

You know all this but you're also trying to get 60 votes in order get any bill to the floor. You have my sympathies, but unless you get these reforms into the final Senate bill you're not really helping most Americans afford future healthcare.

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So what do you do?

First, try for the "reconciliation" process, which requires only 51 votes. Every one of the reforms I mention above would fit under the Byrd rule.

If that doesn't work, wrap these reforms together -- a public option open to everyone (allow states to opt out of this if they dare), Medicare-negotiated drug benefits, no 12-year monopoly for new drugs, and a major squeeze on Medicare reimbursements for doctors -- and have CBO score the savings. I guarantee you, the number will be large. Then you should dare anyone, Democrat or Republican, to vote against saving Americans so much money in years ahead. How is Ben Nelson going to face voters in Nebraska who would have to pay, say, 20 percent more for healthcare in the future if Nelson refuses to go along?

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If neither of these tactics work, then take whatever bill you must to the Senate floor. But then introduce this reform package as the very first amendment to the bill. Call it the "Ted Kennedy Amendment for Helping Middle Class Families Afford Healthcare," and whip the hell out of the Democrats. Get the president to help you. Surely Joe Biden will. If you can't get 51 votes out of Dems for this, publish the list of Dems who vote against it, strip them of their committee chairs or sub-chairs, and make sure the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee gives them zilch when they're up for reelection.

Nobody promised you this would be easy, Harry. But, hell, why are you there, anyway? Your responsibility isn't just to pass whatever will muster 60 votes and that the president and Dems can later call "healthcare reform." It's to do the right thing by the American people and bring down future healthcare costs. Don't cave in to Lieberman or Nelson or the drug companies or the private insurers or the AMA or anyone else. Lead the charge.

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All best.


Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Harry Reid Healthcare Reform Joe Lieberman U.s. Senate

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