What could have been: a bipartisan approach to health care reform

None of us wishes for our government to fail, especially on something as important as health care reform.  However, observers across the country are now suggesting that the seeds for the current problems with the Obamacare rollout were sown in the way the way the law was passed and then sold to the American people.

As I said at the time, and still believe today, a smarter government approach would have been bipartisan at the start, focused on the health care reform problems both parties could agree on.

Instead, now the Obama Administration is frantically trying to fix the broken health care exchange website. Meanwhile, this week’s news cycle has been dominated by stories of the millions of Americans who will not be able to keep their current health plans, despite repeated assurances by President Obama that this wouldn’t happen. Regarding the President’s repeated promised, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote:

For years, Barack Obama constantly told Americans that if they liked their health coverage status quo, they had nothing to fear from Obamacare.

Then Obamacare begins to roll out, and millions of Americans learn they’re going to lose the plans they like, and how does the president respond? By telling these Americans they should realize they have bad plans that they shouldn’t want.

So the truth isn’t that if you like your health plan, you can keep it. Instead, if the president likes your health plan, you can keep it.

Given the many problems Obamacare’s rollout has had and the anger over the President’s dissembling, many are wondering if the federal government could have taken a better approach to health care reform. While it may not have pleased the President’s most ardent supporters, a slower, more step-by-step approach to reform may have worked better.

Instead, the administration has learned how difficult it is to implement such a large bureaucratic program and such massive change, even with over three years to get ready. As Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post, “there is a serious gap between the simplicity of the message that sold Obamacare and the complexity of the law’s outcomes.”

The administration also could have put real effort into making health care reform bipartisan. Legislation that involves such massive change has a much better chance of succeeding when both parties are invested in its outcome. That likely would have meant a final product that looked less like what the Democratic base wanted to see, but it would have had the added benefit of giving the law more stability and legitimacy.

President Obama and Congressional Democrats in 2009-2010 talked about wanting to work with Republicans, but they made the decision to pursue a health care bill that was as far left as they could achieve while they still held large majorities in both houses. The attitude was one of getting while the getting was good, rather than asking the tough questions about what compromises they could make that would make the health care reform bill more stable and more acceptable to a larger number of Americans.

Byron York notes that when the Clintons attempted health care reform in 1993, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), one of the Senate’s all-time greats, told them that it was much wiser to pass such an important bill with a big majority, at least “70-30,” or it would fail. The health care reform law we now call Obamacare is suffering from that lack of broad support. York concludes:

Now, Obama is suffering the consequences of relying on just one party. When problems arose with his signature legislative achievement, he had no Republican support to help him out. None.

Many Democrats and their defenders in the press will answer that the president and Democrats had no choice but to go it alone back in ’09 and ’10, because Republican opposition was so intractable that a bipartisan agreement was simply impossible. That was certainly true if Obamacare had to be the measure that eventually passed. But what if it had been something different, something smaller and less intrusive in American lives? Then, perhaps, it could have won some Republican support. It wouldn’t have been “universal” health care, and it would have disappointed many on the left. But it wouldn’t have faced the prospect of full-scale disaster, either.

-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.