Wealthy Frenchman

Friday, September 21, 2007

Health Care Hopes

By PAUL KRUGMAN

All the evidence suggests that it has finally become politically possible to give Americans what citizens of every other advanced nation already have: guaranteed health insurance. The economics of universal health care are sound, and polls show strong public support for guaranteed care. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that around.

True, one kind of fear seems, provisionally, to have been overcome: the timidity of Democratic politicians scarred by the failure of the original Clinton health plan.

To see how much things have changed, consider Hillary Clinton’s evolution. Just 15 months ago, The New York Times reported that “her plans to expand coverage are tempered and incremental,” and that “she continues to shy from the ultimate challenge: describing what a comprehensive Democratic health care plan would look like.”

Indeed, when she was asked how costs might be controlled, she demurred: “It depends on what kind of system you’re devising. And that’s still not at all clear to me, what the body politic will bear.”

But that was then.

John Edwards broke the issue of health care reform open in February, when he proposed a smart and serious plan for universal health insurance — and bravely announced his willingness to pay for the plan by letting some of the Bush tax cuts expire. Suddenly, universal health care went from being a distant progressive dream to something you could actually envision happening in the next administration.

Senator Clinton delayed a long time before coming out with her own plan — a delay that created a lot of anxiety among health care reformers, and may, as I’ll explain in a minute, be a bad omen for the future. Still, this week she did deliver a plan, and it’s as strong as the Edwards plan — because unless you get deep into the fine print, the Clinton plan basically is the Edwards plan.

That’s not a criticism; it’s much more important that a politician get health care right than that he or she score points for originality. Senator Clinton may be politically cautious, but she does understand health care economics and she knows a good thing when she sees it.

The Edwards and Clinton plans as well as the slightly weaker but similar Obama plan achieve universal-or-near-universal coverage through a well-thought-out combination of insurance regulation, subsidies and public-private competition. These plans may disappoint advocates of a cleaner, simpler single-payer system. But it’s hard to see how Medicare for all could get through Congress any time in the near future, whereas Edwards-type plans offer a reasonable second best that you can actually envision being enacted by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president just two years from now.

To get there, however, would require overcoming a lot more fear.

There won’t be a serious Republican alternative. The health care plans of the leading Republican candidates, such as they are, are the same old, same old: they principally rely on tax breaks that go mainly to the well-off, but will supposedly conjure up the magic of the market. As Ezra Klein of The American Prospect cruelly but accurately puts it: “The Republican vision is for a world in which the sick and dying get to deduct some of the cost of health insurance that they don’t have — and can’t get — on their taxes.”

But the G.O.P. nominee, whoever he is, won’t be trying to persuade the public of the merits of his own plan. Instead, he’ll try to scare the dwindling fraction of Americans who still have good health insurance by claiming that the Democrats will take it away.

The smear-and-fear campaign has already started. The Democratic plans all bear a strong resemblance to the health care plan that Mitt Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts, differing mainly in offering Americans additional choices. But that didn’t stop Mr. Romney from denouncing the Clinton plan as “European-style socialized medicine.” And Fred Thompson claims that the Clinton plan denies choice — which it actually offers in abundance — and relies on “punishment” instead.

These attacks probably won’t be effective enough to prevent a Democrat from winning next year. But that won’t be the end of the story: even if the Democrats take the White House and expand their Congressional majorities, the insurance and drug lobbies will try to bully them into backing down on their campaign promises.

That’s why the long delay before Senator Clinton announced her health care plan made supporters of universal care, myself included, so nervous — a nervousness that is not completely assuaged by the fact that she finally did deliver. It’s good to know that whoever gets the Democratic nomination will run on a very good health care plan. What remains is the question of whether he or she will have the determination to turn that plan into reality.

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