Healthy Americans Act is a blueprint for reform

By Judd Gregg
http://www.seacoastonline.com

Editor’s note: The writer is the senior U.S. senator from New Hampshire. He is a member and former chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Over the past decade, many ideas about how to reform the U.S. health-care system have been debated in Washington. Some good and some bad, but almost all have been backed entirely by either one political party or the other. And, of course, nothing has come of it. Our health-care system continues to be extremely expensive, with millions of Americans unable to afford even basic coverage. The good news is that the health-care system may finally get more than a Band-Aid, as a bipartisan effort is under way to tackle one of the most serious problems facing this country.

Last year, although we as a nation spent more than $2 trillion on health care, an estimated 43 million Americans lacked health-care insurance at any given point during the year. It is an understatement to say the system is broken and is in need of an overhaul. But what will the framework of that reform look like?

As residents of New Hampshire, we are hearing a lot about plans to rebuild the health-care system from 2008 presidential candidates crisscrossing the state. The path offered by the leading Democratic candidates — a nationalized, single-payer health-care system run by the federal government — is not the answer. Despite their persuasive marketing, this plan will only lead to rationing and lower-quality health-care services.

The answer lies in a consumer-based, private market approach, which is the cornerstone of bipartisan legislation called The Healthy Americans Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Robert Bennett, R-Utah, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and myself. I have joined this bipartisan effort to expand quality and affordable private health-care insurance coverage to all Americans, with a focus on personal responsibility, preventive care, and prudent cost-control measures.

The bill establishes a system of private health insurance to ensure that all Americans, other than those already covered by Medicare or the U.S. military, have a quality and affordable private insurance plan. How will this work? State-based Health Help Agencies will be established to provide information about the state’s private health plans and assist with the enrollment process. This empowers consumers — instead of their employers — to choose the plan that is right for them and their families, and promotes competition among the private insurance plans to offer the best product at the lowest cost. And the health insurance is linked to the individual, not their employer. In other words, the insurance is portable and can follow someone from job to job.

To ensure that everyone can afford care, the Health Help Agencies will provide individuals and families with sliding-scale premium subsidies. In addition, under this proposal, individuals would receive a $6,000 tax deduction and families would receive a $15,000 deduction plus an additional $2,000 for each child.

The bill also provides incentives for both individuals and insurers to focus on preventive health care, wellness programs, and disease management. That will result in healthier Americans who hopefully will have less need for chronic disease-related medical treatments and less reliance on hospital emergency room care.

Furthermore, the plan provides health-care cost-containment measures, such as lowering administrative costs and focusing on chronic care management, health information technology and medical malpractice reform as tools to control costs. That way, health-care dollars can be spent where they are needed most — on patient care.

Despite these positive aspects, I do have some serious concerns about this plan, including its impact on overall health-care costs from the imposition of mandates; its impact on current market competition; and its impact on domestic businesses and our global competitiveness. But I am optimistic because it is a private-market approach, instead of a nationalized plan that will put our health-care choices in the hands of the federal government. Despite its flaws, which I will continue to work to improve upon, this health-care reform blueprint goes a long way toward empowering consumers and the private market to extend coverage to all Americans.

In short, The Healthy Americans Act is by no means a perfect plan, but it is a step in the right direction. Most importantly, this private market-based, bipartisan legislation creates an opportunity for senators from both political parties to reach across party lines to share ideas, work out differences and seek common ground. That is the only way we will ever realistically hammer out a workable — and politically viable — solution to this problem. In a country that spends trillions on health care, we need to implement a system under which everyone can access it.
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