By reaching a compromise with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) (we’ll talk about how below), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has cleared the last major obstacle to historic passage of health reform in the U.S. Senate.

If all goes according to plan, the Senate will vote for passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) on Christmas Eve, putting the United States on the verge of enacting a major historic overhaul of health care financing and delivery and setting the stage of an intense round of negotiations between the House and the Senate over the shape of a final package.  (We’ll focus on those House-Senate negotiations next week).  The expected schedule of votes is as follows:

•    Monday 1 AM: add the “Manager’s amendment” to the underlying PPACA proposal (passed 60-40). See Community Catalyst’s reaction to the vote here. •    Tuesday 7 AM: replace the underlying “shell bill” with the PPACA (60 votes needed) •    Wednesday 1 PM: agree to stop talking and take a final vote (60 votes needed) •    Thursday 7 PM: Vote on final passage (51 votes needed)

The Manager’s Amendment

The Manager’s Amendment includes a number of other improvements to the underlying bill including stronger accountability and transparency provisions for health insurers, a new approach to national plans overseen by the Office of Personnel Management (the same office that oversees the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan) stronger cost containment provisions and improved coverage for children.  Click here for CC summary of the key changes.

An agreement was also struck with physicians to do a two month patch on Medicare physician payment rates (as an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill) that would otherwise be cut Jan. 1 with the understanding that after the recess Congress would come back and work on a longer term solution.

The key to locking down the 60th vote for heath reform in the Senate was finding language that would be acceptable to both anti-choice Sen. Ben Nelson and pro-choice Senators represented by Senators Boxer and Murray. (Sen. Casey from Pennsylvania was the other main party to the negotiation).  The main elements of the proposed abortion compromise include giving states the right to determine whether abortion coverage will be available in their state exchanges, strict segregation of federal funds, and additional support for adoption and for pregnant teens.

The agreement was struck despite the opposition of virtually all outside advocacy groups on both sides of the abortion debate.  Setting the stage for conflict down the road, both Congressman Stupak (who authored the abortion restriction in the House) and Congresswoman DeGette (who leads the House pro-choice caucus) have voiced concerns about the Senate language.

Naughty and Niceelf-list The results of the Insider’s holiday naughty and nice poll are in.

In the naughty category, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut won by a landslide, easily eclipsing interest group leaders and other political figures. While Lieberman was not unique in his opposition to the inclusion of a public insurance option as part of reform, he angered proponents with his inability to articulate any consistent or fact-based basis for his opposition and perhaps equally for his flip-flop on a proposed Medicare buy-in that was advanced as a possible compromise.  Historically, Lieberman has been a supporter of the Medicare buy-in and appeared unable to give a coherent reason for his last-minute switch.  There was a late surge for Sen. Ben Nelson, but there’s no doubt who Insider readers regard as health reform Public Enemy Number One.

In the nice category, the winner was Hill staffers.  The vote reflects the experience of Insider readers who are mostly health reform advocates and activists.  While Senators and Congressmen get the headlines, a small group of Congressional staffers have worked countless hours to make reform happen.  They are truly the unsung heroes of health reform, and the Insider is happy to give them a shout out for their incredible dedication.

The other leader in the nice category was the late Senator Kennedy.  Though illness and untimely death kept him from exerting as much leadership in the debate as we’d come to expect from him over the years, Insider readers agreed that Kennedy remained the guiding spirit throughout the debate.  Final passage of reform will be an enduring monument to his tireless work over the decades to secure health security for all.

Jon Stewart also polled strongly in the nice category.  There have been many times when we desperately needed laughter at the inanity of the debate, and Stewart has probably done more than anyone else to highlight the frequent absurdities. (His panel discussion on death panels—should they be public or private and available to all or only through the exchange—is one of my personal favorites).  The Insider editor also gives an honorable mention in the nice category to Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn, two journalists whose blog coverage of the debate has been consistently excellent.  Hope Hanukah Harry was good to you guys.

The Great “Is it Worth it?” Debate or Two Cheers for Health Reform

A Health Reform Quiz:

Is the PPACA a)    a great bill b)    a terrible bill that is little more than a giveaway to private insurers c)    a terrible bill that is a government takeover of the health care system that will explode the federal debt d)    a flawed bill that nonetheless does a lot of good and must be passed

Depending on which health care “team” you play for, you’re likely to pick your answer from a-c. Senate Democratic leaders and their loyal supporters among some advocacy groups pick “a” (some of them really think the answer is “d” but aren’t allowed to say so), disappointed activists on the left pick “b”, and the (mostly Republican) opposition and certain special interest groups pick “c”.   But the truth—as best as I can determine it and as honestly as I can answer the question—is “d.”

Why isn’t the right answer “a”?  First and foremost, although the Senate bill does a lot to make coverage and care more affordable, it doesn’t do enough.  A person can drown in six feet of water or 60, and many low- and moderate-income families will still find the premiums and cost-sharing requirements in the Senate bill to be a significant financial burden that could limit their ability to access health care or threaten their ability to afford other necessities. Legislation passed in the House does a much better job of making coverage and care affordable for those most likely to need help.  And while there are many improvements in insurance oversight, there are still some troubling loopholes that could undermine the effectiveness of the new insurance exchanges as a tool for driving down costs and holding insurers accountable.

Finally, due to their inability to agree on adequate financing, the Senate bill takes too leisurely approach to reducing the number of uninsured.  It’s worth noting that when Medicare passed in 1965, benefits started the next year.  When Massachusetts enacted their groundbreaking reform in 2006, a major expansion of coverage was underway within six months.  In the Senate bill, it takes four years for the major coverage provisions to kick in.

Both Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have spoken eloquently about the toll of preventable death, not to mention the financial damage and anxiety caused by our current system.  Yet these problems will continue essentially unchecked for four long years because Senators could not agree on a more robust financing package.  In fairness, some of the responsibility for this slow motion reform must also be laid on the President’s doorstep—a result of his mysterious insistence that the “cost” of reform not exceed $900 billion over 10 years even if fully or more than fully offset with new revenue and savings. Keeping under the $900 billion threshold is part of the reason why it takes reform so long to get going.

Certain corners of  the left claim that the bill is nothing more than a giveaway to insurers or that that the proposed excise tax on high cost health insurance plans is unfair. The first criticism is an exaggeration triggered largely by the disappointment around the public plan. While removal of the public plan is a real loss, basing support for reform on this single issue ignores the substantial good the bill would do (see below). The second criticism also has some merit, but the objection should not be enough to scuttle the bill. Though there’s every reason to think that there are better ways to control health care costs than taxing benefits as an incentive for people to have less comprehensive coverage, the reform proposal is hands down fairer than the status quo, even including the benefit tax.

What about the criticism from the right?  For the most part, it has no more reality to it than the death panels of summer did.

Health care is complicated, health reform is complicated and forecasting the future is far from an exact science.  So it’s possible the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) made mistakes in assessing the impact of the bill on the federal deficit, but it is just as likely that they have underestimated as overestimated the effect.  Despite its limitations, the CBO is the best umpire we have available.  Critics who were all too happy to cite earlier CBO analyses that supported their case look hypocritical now as they reject CBO findings that show that the Senate bill will substantially reduce the federal deficit over time.

And if prohibiting insurers from rejecting people because they have a pre-existing condition or keeping them from ratcheting up premiums to force people who file claims to drop coverage, or creating some transparency and accountability in the industry constitutes a government takeover, then bring it on, I say.  Defense of the status quo is unconscionable.

Why pass reform despite its flaws?  First, as I’ve said, because the bill is simply no where near as bad as its critics on the left and right would have it.  It is imperfect but it does a lot of good, such as elimination of pre-existing condition exclusions, a prohibition on charging people more based on gender or occupation, limits on how much more they can be charged based on age and much more. Here’s our short list of the good stuff.

Not only that, but there will be time and opportunity, as well as the necessity, to correct flaws as we go along.  Consider Medicare Part D.  The program as passed was considered with substantial justification, to be a giveaway to the insurers and drug industry.  It is also overly confusing and inefficient.  Nonetheless it provides important help accessing prescription drugs for millions of Medicare beneficiaries.  Moreover, substantial improvements in the program are being contemplated now as part of reform, and there is no reason to suppose that additional improvements to PPACA cannot be made in the future.  So has it been with Medicare and Medicaid, and so will it be with PPACA.

Like we wrote last week, every victory is partial and impermanent. It must be both defended constantly and built upon.  If the history of health reform teaches us anything, it’s that while incremental progress is possible often, the chances for big change are rare, and we should take them.   If we wait for the perfect, we will wait forever.

Those who want to provide health security for all but who counsel starting over not only undervalue the improvements that reform will make, but also underestimate the difficulty of starting over and the damage that would be done to millions of people in the meantime.  As a rallying cry, “Pass this legislation despite its flaws” may not be that inspiring, but it fits the imperfect world we live in, and captures the imperative before us.

Let’s get this bill passed and then get to work making it better.

–Michael Miller, director of strategic policy