President Obama has insisted throughout the year that waiting even one more year to pass a comprehensive reform of the American health care system would be devastating for American families. The need for change is urgent because, he has repeated, prices are rising so rapidly, and so many people are being denied coverage, that further delay would cruelly deprive care to people who need it now.
“… the cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough. So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year,” he said in his February primetime television address to the nation.
“We’ve got to get it done this year, both in the House and in the Senate,” he said on May 13.
“This debate is not a game for these Americans [affected by problems with the current system], and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer,” he said on July 22. “If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit. If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket. If we do not act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day.”
“We cannot wait any longer,” he said again on September 26.
And then, on December 2, Peter Orszag, Obama’s budget director, said the obvious. “It will be years to decades” before Americans have an efficient health care system that functions as the administration would like it to function.
At a health care forum for reporters, New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg noticed that Orszag said the administration wanted to lay the foundation for an efficient health care system that emphasizes quality of care over quantity. She asked Orszag how long that would take.
“It is a gradual process that, you know, will be moving forward. It will be years to decades, but just continuous improvement, and that is the point.”
Stolberg asked if 2015 were a reasonable time by which Americans could expect to see this new system in effect. Orszag said some parts would be in place before that, but reiterated that the change the administration wants will be a long time in coming.
“It’s more like a lifelong nutrition or diet, not studying for an exam. You don’t just, you know, study for the exam and you’re done with it. It requires continuous effort. And what you are doing in this legislation is putting together a system that will make that easier to do.”
Urgency? Immediate change to help people who need it now? Not so much.
Orszag’s exchange with Stolberg lasted two minutes and 18 seconds, which is all it took to undo 11 months of President Obama’s hype. The truth is that passing health care reform by the end of this month is not essential. Whatever changes Congress and the administration make to the law will take years, if not decades, to reshape 17 percent of the U.S. economy. And that is if they actually function as intended, which is always questionable.
In two minutes and 18 seconds, Orszag revealed Obama’s appeals for immediate action to be nothing more than hollow political rhetoric. There is no need to rush these changes into law. The greater need, Orszag’s statements strongly suggest, is to make sure we get it right. If change takes that long to be fully realized, then correcting an error could take generations. One mistake could worsen the lives of millions of Americans for decades. Why take that risk? Why not take our time and make sure we get it right?
The president ought to be working as diligently as possible to craft careful, prudent legislation that contains as few surprises and opportunities for unintended consequences as possible. Instead, he is rushing us to pass by the end of the year a hastily thrown-together bill that only a handful of Americans will have read, the outcome of which is uncertain, but which will certainly make dramatic changes to nearly a fifth of the U.S. economy.
Again, if there’s no rush, then what’s the rush? It’s enough to make one question whether improving the current health care system is really this president’s goal after all, or whether passing something — anything — before the mid-term elections 12 months from now is the real objective.