By Richard Haugh
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
In his keynote address at a Dec. 5 health care summit at the Denver Performing Arts Center, former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, President-elect Barack Obama’s appointee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, said health reform is one of Obama’s top priorities.
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, left, and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, right, together at a health care summit held in Denver.
Daschle supports universal health care and called for major changes to the country’s health care system.
“Cover everybody,” he told the Denver gathering. “Everybody needs to be part of the system. That would go a long way toward ending the cost shifting that’s costing us so much.”
Although Daschle was mum on specifics, his comments at the summit, which was hosted by Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, offer the first public glimpse of Obama’s vision for health care reform.
During the presidential campaign, Obama said change must include expanding insurance coverage, reducing costs and improving quality.
The summit capped Democrat Salazar’s three-month effort to gather information and suggestions from Coloradans on health care reform.
Some of those suggestions are apt to weigh into debates in the new session of the Colorado Legislature.
A bill to create a single-payer system to finance health care probably will be on the agenda when the Legislature reconvenes in January, according to Bill Lindsay, the former chairman of a state commission that reviewed health care reform proposals.
Lindsay also thinks it’s possible that the General Assembly will back legislation to launch a pilot version of the single-payer system.
Although the tanking economy is tightening budgets, Lindsay doesn’t think action on potentially expensive health care reform should be delayed any further.
“The economic environment we’re in is actually a positive,” Lindsay said. “It forces us to be innovative and cost-effective in dealing with this crucial issue.”
A single-payer system was one of several options considered during 2007 hearings of Gov. Bill Ritter’s Blue Ribbon Commission for Health Care Reform, which Lindsay chaired.
Lindsay is president of the Benefits Group for the Denver office of Lockton Companies and serves on the board of directors for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, where he chairs the Health Committee.
The commission delivered its report to Ritter and the 2008 legislative session on Jan. 31.
The sagging U.S. economy and Colorado’s TABOR-restricted budget are sure to bring out opposition to any plans for costly health care reform on the state level.
Lindsay made his remarks only a day after Ritter discussed the state’s economy in a Denver Post guest commentary headlined, “Surviving the downturn in Colorado.”
Although Ritter addressed competing funding needs for higher education, transportation and economic development in the commentary, he didn’t mention health care. That’s a departure from the past, when Ritter has spoken of the state’s health care needs as he summed up goals for the coming year.
Nor do many Statehouse observers expect single-payer legislation to gain any more traction next year than it has in past years. In fact, Lindsay said, although Colorado and other states have considered single-payer systems in one form or another, significant action is far more likely to come from Washington.
“Single-payer is much more difficult to do at the state level than the federal level,” he said. “But it’s still a debate that needs to be held.”
Lindsay thinks demands for reform in the health care system will get a better reception at the national level, where Congress is dominated by a big Democrat majority.
Daschle will play a key role in moving Obama’s ambitious health care agenda through Congress. He has a particular interest in health care reform, and early this year published a book, Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis.
At the Denver summit, Daschle called for giving consumers the ability to buy insurance from private companies as they do now, or from a new government program that would provide subsidies to people based on their incomes.
“If you like what you have, you ought to be able to keep it,” Daschle said. “If not, we ought to pool the resources of those who aren’t in the system and offer the same plan members of Congress have.”
Daschle also said programs such as Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program — both big-ticket programs for states with shrinking budgets — must be protected.
Daschle has proposed creating a Federal Health Board to oversee a largely private health care delivery system. He sees an FHB akin to the Federal Reserve Board, ensuring standards, transparency and performance for public health, and providing a framework for the private health care system.
“So what’s next? Next is you,” Daschle told the audience of Colorado health care leaders gathered at the DCPA. “We have to make this as inclusive a process as possible. We want to move this to a discussion around the country.”
Daschle said Obama plans to take his ideas directly to the public. Using organizing tools that served him well on the stump, the new Obama administration will seek input from average Americans on health care reform. Already, Obama’s team has posted health care videos to his Web site, change.gov, and is soliciting comments and ideas from the public. So far, 10,000 comments have been received, Daschle said.
By the end of the year, the Obama team plans to hold holiday season house parties around the country to foster discussion and suggestions, which will be posted on the Web site. Daschle has promised to attend at least one of the community sessions in person and will provide a detailed report complete with video to Obama.