The Healing Powers of Consensus

by Douglas E. Schoen

President Obama’s health reform effort recently received a significant boost when a coalition of healthcare stakeholders gathered at the White House and agreed to work together with the president to cut healthcare costs by $2 trillion over the next ten years.

That’s an impressive feat, particularly in our current hyper-partisan environment. But if President Obama hopes to make good on his promise to deliver health reform this year, the recent gathering must not be his last attempt to achieve consensus among the many parties working for health reform.

Historically, health reform has inspired more partisanship than almost any other domestic issue. Legislators, industry leaders, and citizens of all political stripes have held firm in their convictions.

Some insist on a strong, market-based healthcare system, powered by the competitive forces of the private sector. Others view health care as a fundamental right that should be defended or even guaranteed by the government.

These opposing positions naturally flow from the two major governing philosophies in American politics and have, time and again, proven resistant to compromise. Indeed, President Clinton’s 1993 attempt to overhaul the healthcare system failed largely because it did not strive for common ground between these disparate viewpoints.

President Obama seems to have learned from the Clinton experience. He’s reached out to former opponents of health reform and enlisted them to his cause. In fact, all but one of the groups participating in this week’s discussion opposed President Clinton’s plan 15 years ago. By including these key groups from the get-go, a meaningful agreement on healthcare reform seems more likely than ever before.

Public opinion is on the president’s side, too. According to a poll conducted last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 59 percent of Americans agree that healthcare reform is more important than ever. A full 43 percent of Americans believe that health reform should be the government’s highest priority, despite other urgent problems facing the country, like the growing budget deficit and the ailing economy.

In this complicated political climate — where everyone agrees about the problem but disagrees about the solution — the arduous task of building consensus is the only viable way to achieve meaningful reform.

That’s what made the recent White House event so important. Representatives from organized labor, hospitals, the largest physician group, and the drug, medical device, and insurance industries put aside their political differences and spoke candidly about the threats to our nation posed by growing healthcare costs.

The shared mission of this coalition, which they stated succinctly in a joint letter to the president, is to “improve the population’s health; continuously improve quality; encourage the advancement of medical treatments, approaches, and science; streamline administration; and encourage efficient care delivery based on evidence and best practice.”

These are precisely the kinds of pragmatic goals that will be amenable to the 59 percent of Americans demanding healthcare reform now.

One way for this coalition to help achieve the broad goal of trimming health costs? Focusing on prevention. Promoting wellness and healthy lifestyles is far cheaper than paying for acute hospital care. Health reformers should train their sights on the obesity epidemic, particularly among children. Such an effort will pay dividends for generations to come.

When combined with the cost-cutting measures the groups have promised, a focus on prevention could help health reform pay for itself.

All parties should also be able to get behind efforts link up Americans with public healthcare programs that already exist. Currently 12 million uninsured Americans are entitled to enroll in government programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and SCHIP but have neglected to sign up.

Linking these folks with public programs that are already available will make a dent in the number of Americans without insurance, which currently stands at about 47 million.

The unlikely coalition proves that it’s possible to have a substantive discussion about health care without descending into an ideologically charged debate.

It’s hard to say for sure if “the stars are aligned” for healthcare reform, as President Obama recently claimed. But if he continues to eschew ideology and focus on commonsense, universally accepted goals like lowering costs, healthcare reform might come to pass sooner than anyone thought.

(Douglas E. Schoen was a campaign consultant for more than 30 years and is the author of “Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System.”)

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