5 next steps for health care

pelosi_100322.gi.top.jpgHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi laughs with other Democratic representatives on the night that Congress passed historic health-care reform.By David Ewing Duncan, contributor


(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 government-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. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.15 0.00 0.00%
Facebook Inc 58.94 0.00 0.00%
General Electric Co 26.56 0.00 0.00%
Cisco Systems Inc 23.19 -0.02 -0.09%
Micron Technology In... 23.91 0.00 0.00%
Data as of Apr 17
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,408.54 -16.31 -0.10%
Nasdaq 4,095.52 9.29 0.23%
S&P 500 1,864.85 2.54 0.14%
Treasuries 2.72 0.08 3.19%
Data as of 4:46am ET
Sponsors

Sections

Spencer has been a supporting member of the "Good Morning America" cast for the past three years. More

Obamacare sign ups hit 8 million, though final enrollment remains to be seen. More

Office for iPad move is a symbolic victory for Nadella's Microsoft, but the company is still weighed down by many of the same old issues. More

Schwinn, Trek and Cannondale are all iconic American bicycle brands. But none of them are made in the United States. More

As Detroit moves closer to reaching a bankruptcy deal, retired civilian workers are poised to be left worse off than firemen and police officers. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.