|Marc L. Goldwein|
President Bush laid out an ambitious agenda for his second term in office to improve healthcare in the United States. Along with several experts and politicians, the President introduced a six-point plan aimed at reducing the cost and improving the quality of healthcare for all citizens.
President Bush took the opportunity to tout the accomplishments made during his first term. First among them a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, which will begin in 2006. In the past, the President argued, the government would pay for heart surgery, " but not for the medicine that could prevent the heart surgery from being needed in the first place."
President Bush also touted his Health Savings Accounts, which allow people to contribute to catastrophic health coverage, and roll over unused contributions into a tax-free account which can be used for any healthcare expenses. This is viewed by many as a way to encourage health savings as well as a mechanism for reducing prices. " If you're a consumer of health care and you're in the marketplace making health care decisions," argues the President, "it is more likely that there be more cost control in health care than a system in which the consumer of health care has his or her health care bills paid by a third party provider."
While President Bush was proud that he had accomplished the first third of his six-point plan, he realized there was much more to be done. First on his list for the second term is medical malpractice liability reform. " Good doctors are [being] targeted by frivolous and junk lawsuits," explained Bush adviser Alan Gilbert, "this raises medical liability premiums for all doctors, even those who have never been the target of a lawsuit. Ultimately, the availability of health care services in some communities is reduced." In order to combat these high costs, the President has proposed a cap on non-economic punitive damages in the hope that this will reduce the incentive for lawyers to bring forth frivolous lawsuits which will keep doctors in their communities and lower the cost of health insurance.
President Bush called for Association Health Plans as a way to reduce health insurance costs. These plans would allow small businesses to pool together to buy insurance for their employees — being able to receive the same discounts that big companies get. Currently, many state and federal laws make this difficult, especially when the small businesses are based in different states. Said Bush, "I look forward to working with Congress to get an association health plan out, a bill out that will allow for pooling of risk for small business owners across jurisdictional boundaries."
The fifth part of Bush's six point plan involves bringing generic drugs to the market faster. The United States produces generic prescription drugs which are both cheaper and safer than in Canada and Europe, but drug companies often try to use loopholes to extend their patents and keep generic drugs out of the market. "Brand-name drugs are protected by patent for a period of time to allow pharmaceutical companies to recoup their research and development -- that makes sense," Explained the President, "but what doesn't make sense is the company's ability to delay the arrival of generic drugs.
Finally, the president argued that faster development of medical technology can reduce costs and improve the quality of healthcare. He called on Congress to reduce regulations making it difficult for the fast introduction of new technologies into hospitals and research centers. At the same time, he pledged to double to NIH (National Institute of Health) budget by the end of his second term.
While Democrats support President Bush's efforts to increase NIH funding and speed up the introduction of generic drugs, many oppose the rest of Bush's healthcare plan. Unfortunately, the White House plan for health care will actually make matters far worse," John Kerry argued on January 27th. in response to the President's speech. Only seven democrats voted for Bush's prescription drug benefit in the Senate, and most oppose health savings accounts which Senator Kerry and the democrats argue "will let insurance costs get higher, not lower." The democrats, meanwhile have called for importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and a patient's bill of rights, both of which President Bush supports (re-importation only if it can be done safely), but neither of which he has pushed for in his first or second term.
Still, President Bush believes a "myriad of approaches" can successfully lower healthcare costs. Said Bush, " I believe the more we empower people to make decisions, the better off we are in terms of achieving a national objective, which is affordable health care that's available to everyone"