Daschle pledges ‘meaningful health reform to people all over this country’

(Photo/S.C. Axman, Flickr)

(Photo/S.C. Axman, Flickr)

Pledging to avoid past mistakes that resulted in failed efforts to fix the nation’s health care system, former Sen. Tom Daschle kicked off the Obama administration’s drive to “bring meaningful health reform” to all Americans at a conference in Denver on Friday. “The economic health of this country is directly related to our ability to reform our health care system,” he said, unveiling plans to involve ordinary Americans in community discussions about how best to repair the system. “I believe for the first time in American history, health care reform will be done.”

Daschle, the presumptive Health and Human Services secretary, struck a combative tone as he outlined plans to repair a “failed” health care system. “Those who don’t want change will have to explain why change is not better than what we have now,” he said.

“Our goal can be clearly stated,” said Daschle, speaking as the Obama transition team’s Health Policy team leader because his nomination to head the Health and Human Services Department hasn’t been announced. “The goal must be to build a high-performance health care system providing every American with greater quality, greater access and lower cost.”

Exploding health care costs threaten to derail any effort at economic recovery, Daschle said. This makes broad health care reform both frugal and urgent. “If we don’t control costs, whatever bailout we provide the automobile manufacturers will be almost meaningless,” he told a crowd of about 500 at the 2008 Colorado Health Care Summit, which was organized by Colorado’s Sen. Ken Salazar. “The cost of health care is going to destroy many of our manufacturing industries unless we fix the system.”

The former senate majority leader from South Dakota also pointed to problems in the health care system as root causes of the current economic meltdown. “Health care costs are skyrocketing, outpacing economic growth and that of wages,” he said. “One half of all bankruptcies, one half of all home foreclosures are related to medical costs.” Businesses face the same challenges as individuals, and must “balance the need to provide care with the need to stay competitive. Rising health care costs are recognized as nation’s No. 1 long-term economic and budget challenge.” If nothing changes, he said, health care costs could double over the next six years. “Status quo could be the most costly option of all.”

Obama’s health care plan, outlined during his presidential campaign, would build on existing employer-based insurance plans and allow uninsured or under-insured Americans to “pool resources to offer the same options members of Congress have,” Daschle said. But expanded coverage is only part of the solution, he said, outlining a series of goals that included mental-health coverage parity, better treatment of chronic diseases and information technology advances that have lowered costs in some hospital systems, including the VA health system.

Daschle compared the government’s role in a reformed health care system with the FAA’s role in ensuring the safety of airline passengers whether they fly coach or first-class. “However you fly, you get there safely,” he said. “We want to get you from the beginning of life to the end of life in as healthy condition as you can possibly be.”

The task ahead is enormous, he admitted. “We have a long, long way to go to be the best health care system in the world,” he said, after listing poor rankings for Americans in categories including infant mortality and life expectancy.

Pointing to earlier efforts to reform health care — including the Clinton administration’s failed 1993 plan — Daschle said he intended to “apply the lessons learned.” Primarily, he said, reformers would “make this as inclusive a process as possible.”

After describing the system’s problems and sketching out goals, Daschle threw the solution, in part, to the audience. “So what’s next? ” he asked. “We want to take this whole process to the next level. And what’s next is you are. What we want to do now is to move to a discussion across the country.”

Toward that end, Daschle announced a series of community discussions devoted to health care. The discussions will be organized through the Obama transition team’s Web site, change.gov. The house parties, which take place during the last two weeks of December, will allow Americans to generate ideas and make recommendations for health care reform. Daschle said he would attend one meeting scheduled through the Web site.

The meetings mimic the Obama campaign’s platform committee meetings held during the summer, the transition team said in a release, and are designed to “help the Health Team flesh out key issues around health policy and give the Team fresh ideas about the best ways to promote the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect’s vision of quality affordable health care for all Americans.”

“Providing quality affordable health care for all Americans is one of my top priorities for this country because our long-term fiscal prospects will have a hard time improving as long as sky-rocketing health care costs are holding us all down,” Obama said in a statement. “Yet in order for us to reform our health care system, we must first begin reforming how government communicates with the American people.” Obama promised the discussions would give Americans “a direct say in our health care reform efforts.”

In addition, Daschle said he would apply another lesson learned from the Clinton-era health-reform endeavor: Avoid getting bogged down in details. The legislative process can be deadly if bills get too ornate, said the former Senate majority leader: “If we produce a 1,500-page bill, [we’ll] get hung up in all the details.”

While he didn’t set a timeline for the massive undertaking, Daschle made clear he intends to finish the job sooner rather than later. “Once we get started, it would be a big mistake to put it aside. Once we get started, let’s finish it. Let’s get it done, let’s get it signed, let’s get it implemented.”

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Ernest Luning

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