The “state of our health care is a matter of urgent and utter concern,” said Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event on Monday. The event, “Long Time Coming: A Historical Look at Health Reform and Priorities for 2009,” featured Dingell, a long-time proponent of establishing affordable health coverage for all Americans, and Julie Rovner, health policy correspondent for National Public Radio.
In her introduction, Winnie Stachelberg, CAP’s Senior VP for External Affairs, established the event’s three main themes: the current healthcare system crisis, the successes and failures of health care reform under President Clinton and Congress in the early 1990s, and how the next president and 111th Congress could better tackle the roadblocks to health care reform.
Rovner then noted that no one in Congress comes close to Chairman Dingell’s longitudinal view of health care policy—an observation that Dingell himself underscored when he reminisced about his father’s effort to pass the National Health Insurance Act in 1945, and his own experience presiding over the House of Representatives during the 1965 passage of the Medicare and Medicaid programs. But Dingell’s real focus was on the nation’s challenges today, and the opportunities that may be available to the next president and the new Congress.
With health care costs growing faster than wages and inflation, and coverage out of reach for 47 million Americans, the nation’s health care system is morally indefensible and economically untenable, according to Dingell. He particularly cited the stress health care costs place on American businesses and families, noting that General Motors’ car production costs include health care costs that are two times higher than those of Japanese car manufacturers.
A new Congress and president will likely take up the issue of health care reform again, but they would be wise to learn from the failure of reform efforts in the early 1990s. Dingell characterized health reform supporters in 1994 as “naive” for not anticipating the “all-out war” the insurance industry waged against health reform. He argued that the next president would need to make health reform his first priority and campaign relentlessly for passage. Dingell also noted that the American people have to be at the forefront of this fight, and cited new efforts, such as the Healthcare for America Now coalition, as key players in engaging public opinion in this debate.
The chairman also assured the audience that he will continue to inform the American public of the need for health care reform and that he hopes to make unprecedented progress on this issue in a new Congress. A historic single-payer proponent but also a pragmatic lawmaker, Dingell said he had no particular preference for how a reformed system should be structured—or in his words, “I don’t care if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”
Dingell also expressed his support for a Value Added Tax to finance the public investments necessary to expand coverage and reform the health care delivery system. Rovner closed her Q and A by asking how the increased politicization over health care legislation since 1994 will affect the next president. Dingell once again emphasized that it "depends on the American people." Referring to Lyndon Johnson’s presidential years, Dingell noted that a Congress which understands the desires of the American people will also respond appropriately.