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Is the House's Health Bill Really Worse than Nothing?

Some progressive opponents of the health care bill say it's so bad, we may as well drop it. That analysis ignores the millions of Americans who stand to get coverage.

Step back for a moment and marvel at the legislative contortions on display in Washington as lawmakers try to address a deep crisis in our health-care system without shaking up the status quo too much.

What does that look like? They’re planning to leave the employer-based private system intact, but they’ll re-regulate insurers to a modest degree and brand it “change." No, they won’t force private insurers to compete with a public plan on a truly level playing field, but they’ll give us a small public option where insurance companies can park their sicker, costlier patients. Perhaps states will be able to skip that part entirely. They refuse to make other hard choices that might really bring down costs, but they’ll force you to buy a policy -- don’t worry, if sky-high premiums are out of your reach, they’ll give you a subsidy, assuming you qualify. For those who are too poor to afford even those subsidized premiums, they’ll expand Medicaid, and they’ll pay for the whole thing in part by trimming payments to Medicare providers. And maybe with a tax on millionaires, or maybe one on union autoworkers and others with expensive health insurance. They’ll make employers shoulder a share of their workers’ health-care, or perhaps just pay a small fine if they refuse to.

Got all that? They call Washington’s legislative process "sausage-making," but this time around you’d almost think they’re mixing up a batch of hash brownies. If we’re lucky, what comes out of the oven will be a uniquely American "universal" health-care system that’ll only leave something in the neighborhood of 20 million people uninsured 10 years from now.

But that’s only half the story -- the half about how a decent, progressive legislative proposal got watered down to such a degree by the insurance industry and its allies in Congress that it will do little or nothing to rein in the staggering growth of health-care costs and ultimately prove a windfall, to some degree, for the private insurance industry.

Unfortunately, that half is also almost the exclusive focus of a widely discussed analysis, by one of the nation’s most respected single-payer advocates, of the health-care reforms wending their way through Congress.  And focusing primarily on that half, it should come as little surprise that Marcia Angell, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and a passionate proponent of progressive health-care reform, concluded the bill is "worse than nothing” in an essay published on the Huffington Post.

Her analysis of the bill’s shortcomings is spot-on. Most of her column slices and dices the many ways in which the House bill fails to control costs, fails to cover every person in the country and “augments the central role of the investor-owned insurance industry."

But while it’s hard to argue with her analysis of the bill’s flaws, her conclusion that it's "worse than nothing" is harder to accept. To get there, one has to all but ignore the fact that the House legislation would do quite a bit for millions of real Americans struggling through a very real health-care crisis.

Angell all but ignores that, rendering her analysis incomplete. There were always multiple goals to reform: covering the uninsured, offering access to decent care to those who are priced out of the current system, reining in the abuses of the private market and controlling overall health care costs. The House bill, the subject of Angell’s column, does fail miserably at controlling overall costs and the insurance regulations it contains are tepid (they would only stop the worst abuses, and have loopholes, but that’s clearly better than nothing at all), but it would also do quite a lot to expand the access and improve the affordability of coverage for tens of millions of Americans, many at the lower end of the economic ladder.

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