A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation in August found that healthcare is the top domestic issue that the public wants presidential candidates to address.
Republicans and independent voters ranked healthcare second only to Iraq in the poll, while for the first time, Democrats ranked the two issues as equally important for the candidates to discuss as they campaign.
With more voters interested in changes to American healthcare—which is really shorthand for affordable access to health insurance coverage—the presidential candidates are also showing interest. Sort of.
Some, including John Edwards, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Mitt Romney, have a broad plan or opinion in place. Others, such as Mike Huckabee and John McCain, have not yet shared a plan.
As the election progresses—or even after a new president is sworn into office—will we see any real changes to healthcare access? “There has to be [some change],” states Bradley Flansbaum, DO, MPH, chief of hospitalist section at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, N.Y. “We’ve reached a tipping point. You can’t continue to play kick the can.” The impetus for change, Dr. Flansbaum believes, will not be public opinion so much as money.
“I think that we’re reaching a critical mass, and that premiums will drive the change,” he predicts. “Employers can’t afford insurance benefits any more, and now that employers are changing plans and employees are paying more and faced with higher premiums, I think the house of cards will collapse.”
Laura Allendorf, SHM’s senior adviser for advocacy and government affairs, agrees change is in the air.
“I do think there are better opportunities for action than there have been in the past,” she says. “Various polls show that healthcare [access] is an important issue. That’s why so many candidates are developing proposals on this, or already have a proposal.” She adds, “A U.S. Census Bureau report just came out showing an increase in the number of unemployed—this will lend pressure for policymakers.”
Where Will the Trail Lead?
Campaigning for the 2008 election is in full swing, and no one is surprised the candidates lack firm or detailed opinions on healthcare access. But what can we expect to see in the next year of campaigning?
“As much as Hillary [Clinton] is a lightening rod in some ways, she’s going to be driving the debate on this,” predicts Dr. Flansbaum. “As we get closer to the election and the second- and third-tier candidates start to come apart, she’ll be the one leading the healthcare debate.”
In general, Democrats and Republicans have settled into two camps on the issue.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Don’t listen to the Democrats—they want socialized medicine,’ while the Democrats are saying ‘The Republicans want corporate America to take over,’” says Dr. Flansbaum. “They’re playing games right now. I can’t say if a purely government or a purely corporate system would work, but we probably need and are going to get a mixture of both.” After the election, he says, “There’s got to be some compromise in the middle.”
What about other healthcare issues besides the rising costs and lack of access? “In addition to access, quality improvement is certainly key,” says Allendorf.
For Dr. Flansbaum, everything is connected to access, including healthcare IT, informatics, quality reporting, cost control, and waste reduction.
Hail to the New Chief
Once a new president and his or her administration is in place, will the concerns—and possibly the campaign promises—over healthcare access be dropped?
“Definitely something would—or rather, should—be done,” says Allendorf. “The two parties obviously have different philosophic approaches, but if [the next president] listens to the voters, they’ll act. The voters have spoken.” And if no action is taken on the issues, Allendorf adds, “It’s up to associations like SHM to push for reform.”
But Dr. Flansbaum warns that whatever the change is, it won’t happen overnight.
“There are too many lobbyists and people with their hand in the till to turn this around overnight,” states Dr. Flansbaum. “It will be an incremental change, and it will probably start out like the Massachusetts plan.”
Beginning July 1, Massachusetts enacted a law designed to cover the state’s uninsured population. The law mandates that individuals purchase health insurance with government subsidies to ensure affordability.
—Laura Allendorf, SHM’s senior adviser for advocacy and government affairs
Physician, Educate Thyself
The next year promises more campaigning, including debates and town hall forums, updated Web sites, media interviews, and so on. Allendorf says that as the candidates change and their positions on healthcare issues are fleshed out and become more apparent.
“SHM will provide information through our usual channels and publications about the candidates’ positions as they gel,” she says. “We’ll probably also want to hear from any SHM members who are involved in working with candidates on their positions, crafting proposals or working on healthcare advisory groups.”
For information on the candidates’ healthcare access positions, you can download an August report from the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “The 2008 Presidential Candidates on Health Care Reform,” from www.cahi.org.
You can also find nonpartisan, up-to-date information about candidates’ healthcare policy, as well as analysis of health policy issues, regular public opinion surveys, and news coverage, on a site hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation: www.health08.org. TH
Jane Jerrard has been writing for The Hospitalist since 2005.