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Fortune Magazine Source
By David Ewing Duncan, contributor
March 22, 2010: 12:58 PM ET
(Fortune) — Those of us alive last night will one day retell the story of how mere mortals in Congress and the White House defeated a combined army of Harpies, Gorgons and Minotaurs that for decades have thwarted all efforts to reform the American health-care system.
So maybe most of America last night was riveted not by Parliamentary antics in Congress, but by college basketball. Nonetheless the House of Representatives did the deed when they passed the Senate’s health reform bill at 10:44 pm. A package of changes to the bill still needs to be approved by the Senate, but the basic health-care bill will become law when President Obama signs it.
Now we really can get busy and work on health-care reform.
I’m not talking about the sort of epic reform that was just passed by Congress. That was as much about showing the country that Washington can govern and take on powerful interests, as it was about healing our ailing health-care system.
I’m talking about an agenda of urgent matters that still need to be addressed to truly fix American health care. But not in the hyperventilated, do-or-die atmosphere that has characterized the health-reform debate every time it has been seriously proposed since at least Harry Truman. These remaining issues can be thought of as smaller epics, like chapters in the health-reform Odyssey rather than the entire narrative.
Here’s what’s left to do.
Reduce costs: According to President Obama and Congressional Democrats, the bill just passed will pay for itself over the next ten years. But what about the rest of the $2.7 trillion the nation will spend this year on health care? That works out to almost $9,000 per American — which is nearly twice what the next most expensive country in the world — Switzerland shells out.
Spending this much on health care takes away resources from education, defense, and other priorities. Medicare and Medicaid alone are estimated to cost $763 billion in 2010, which have edged out defense and social security for the first time as the number one expenditure for the federal government, costing 21% of the president’s $3.5 trillion budget.
Improve care: Contrary to the widespread belief that the U.S. has the best health-care outcomes in the world, on many measurements we lag behind nations that spend far less. For life expectancy, the U.S. ranks 23rd out of 27 for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, which also include most of Europe, Japan, Korea, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
While mortality rates in the U.S. for stroke and some cancers rank among the best — meaning fewer deaths, according to the OECD — the U.S. ranks toward the bottom in mortality rates for other maladies such as diabetes. We rank 26th, second to the last, for our infant mortality rate.
Comparative Effectiveness: The bill just passed by Congress allocates funding for investigating and assessing which pharmaceuticals, devices and procedures work best. This effort needs even more funding and a larger mandate to rid health care of expensive treatments that don’t work — or that work no better than less expensive alternatives. We wouldn’t buy a car without consulting Consumer Reports, so why shouldn’t we have the same information available for health-care treatments?
Personalized Health: A revolution in predictive and preventive health care is underway thanks to new discoveries in genetics and molecular biology. The current bill provides some funding and support for translating these scientific discoveries into clinical applications — which is added to previous funding provided by the National Institutes of Health — but much more is needed.
The goal is to shift health care from focusing on sickness and symptoms to emphasizing prediction, early diagnosis, and prevention. (Not all prevention is high tech — holding anti-smoking classes for middle-school students, for instance, is a low-tech option for preventing teens from becoming smokers).
Expanding the publicly funded safety net: Right now 100 million Americans — one in three — have govern ment-funded and administered insurance, mainly through Medicare, Medicaid, and the military. The bill that just passed will go a long way to making sure most of the rest of America is insured, though efforts to provide a publicly financed option to private health insurance failed to make it into the final measure.
Making sure that Americans have an affordable insurance option required by law is unfinished business. We now need to insure that every American — like every citizen in Britain, Germany, Japan, and Korea — is covered by a basic insurance safety net.
Of course, none of these mini-epics will be addressed anytime soon, not with so many other monsters running amok like financial reform, jobs, education, and Afghanistan. But what a relief that the mortals in Washington rose above their bickering to slay at least one or two of the beasts plaguing our land.
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