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Better Health Care Will Strengthen Economy

Agenda Ahead Policy Briefing

How will the 111th Congress tackle health care?

How will the 111th Congress tackle economic recovery?

How will the 111th Congress tackle energy?

How will the 111th Congress tackle global warming?

How will the 111th Congress tackle finance?

Economic recovery will be the first priority for the 111th Congress. We will work with President-elect Barack Obama to craft a bold economic plan that invests in infrastructure and job creation, provides middle-class tax relief and helps struggling families weather the storm.

However, if we are to put our economy on a strong path for the future, we also need to solve our health care crisis. The persistent lack of access to quality health care for millions of Americans represents a threat to our nation’s ability to compete and win in the global marketplace, and thereby a threat to our national security.

In a recent Ways and Means Committee hearing that I chaired, we heard that health costs are rising faster than wages and eating up family budgets. Nearly 46 million Americans have no health coverage at all, and as unemployment rises, even more will lose their insurance. Health care costs are so intertwined with economic security that many families are only one health crisis away from bankruptcy.

Some have compared our current economic crisis to the Great Depression, but one critical difference is that our parents and grandparents did not have programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps to rely on in their times of need.

We cannot deny the importance of this public safety net. We need look no further than the families who are losing their jobs and health insurance and will now turn to Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to understand this fact.

As we undertake health reform next year, we must remember that a strong public health insurance program is a central component of a healthy and workable public-private partnership. A public program would serve as a safeguard available to everyone, protected from the whims of the marketplace, and we must ensure their future for generations to come.

Unfortunately, some of my colleagues like to scapegoat public programs because it is convenient to rail against “big government.” They argue that costs in these programs are unsustainable.

However, the problem of rising health costs is not unique to Medicare or Medicaid. Just as the problem of rising health costs is system-wide, we need a system-wide solution. By undertaking reform, we cannot toss out the backbone of our health system; we need to build on what is working. I hope my colleagues will abandon political rhetoric and join me in health reform efforts, and in shoring up and building on our public programs in the short and long term.

To that end, Congress will soon revisit SCHIP, and under the leadership of a new president, we will finally accomplish the goal of expanding the program to cover millions more needy children. We also need to bolster the social safety net by helping state and local governments pay for the growing Medicaid costs that they will face as more individuals turn to them for help.

We should also provide short-term help to individuals who are losing their jobs and their health care through no fault of their own, especially those who may not be able to turn to Medicaid. Finally, we must strengthen Medicare by eliminating wasteful corporate welfare for private insurance plans, improving efficiencies and ensuring patients continued access to their physicians.

Investing in health care now will pay large dividends in the future. For example, investments in comparative effectiveness research will help providers and patients make smarter choices about their care. Advancements in health information technology can help eliminate inefficient care and reduce the estimated 100,000 preventable deaths that take place each year as the result of medical errors, while also promoting health research and assisting with public health emergencies.

We must also tackle the growing number of uninsured. If we cover everybody, we can lower costs for everybody. Those who feel safe and secure with their current coverage should be able to keep it, but we cannot turn our backs on those less fortunate.

As we’ve learned from the current economic situation, what happens in one sector of the economy ripples throughout and can affect us all. This is especially true for health care. If we ignore the vulnerable and sick, we all pay the price via higher premiums and costs for health care services, as well as a loss of productivity nationwide. If we are to solve our health problem, we must provide coverage for all.

The time is now for action on health reform. Obama is sending the right signals that he’s serious about health reform with his choice of experienced leaders. Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) knows how to work with Congress and achieve results and will be the administration’s point person on health care. Peter Orszag, Obama’s choice to head the Office of Management and Budget, has said rising health care costs represent the central fiscal challenge facing the country. The team being put in place means business, and so do I.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

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