Health Care Reform Isn’t Over

The Congressional Budget Office just made waves by announcing that President Obama’s health care reforms will cost about $115 billion more than initially predicted. That add-on pushes the 10-year cost of the measure over the administration's unofficial $1-trillion limit.

The CBO's new report serves as a stirring reminder that America’s health care problems didn’t disappear the day the president signed the bill into law. Even Democrats acknowledge that the reform effort is incomplete and leaves some of our biggest health care challenges -- like cost-containment -- unresolved.

Lawmakers need to fix these flaws. They must stress to the American public that health care requires additional attention, particularly as this fall's election approaches. But in so doing, they need to avoid the hyper-partisan rhetoric that’s infected the health care debate in the past.

Democrats and Republicans alike first must acknowledge what the reform effort got right. Paramount among the law's achievements are the new public subsidies for low-income patients to purchase private insurance and the state exchanges that will help small businesses secure affordable coverage for their employees.

Unfortunately, the law also has several shortcomings. One such blunder is the creation of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) -- a new agency charged with identifying ways to cut Medicare spending. The IPAB's mission is on target, but as currently constructed, it is dangerously unaccountable. Further, the new agency doesn’t even have the authority to make recommendations concerning the parts of Medicare that are most responsible for escalating costs.

The law also doesn’t address the spiraling costs that plague other parts of our health care system. Indeed, when crafting the bill, lawmakers devoted much more energy to expanding coverage than dealing with the rising price of medical services and health insurance.

The CBO estimates that premiums for many kinds of insurance plans will drop only marginally over the next decade -- if they decrease at all. Prices for individual insurance policies are actually projected to go up by 10 to 13 percent.

Legislators who voted for the bill need to acknowledge these problems in the run-up to this fall's elections. And they need to tell the public how they plan to solve them.

At the same time, legislators who opposed the reform effort must offer tangible solutions for our country's health care problems. Calls to repeal the bill are politically unrealistic and counterproductive. Many of the law's provisions are popular and will resolve some of our health care system's most vexing issues.

One policy prescription that can be at the center of every candidate's platform this fall -- Democrat and Republican alike -- is improved support for pharmaceutical drug innovation.

New drugs cut down on long-term health costs by preventing serious illness and therefore obviating the need for expensive in-patient services, like surgery. In fact, Columbia University Professor Frank Lichtenberg has shown that the health care system saves over $7 for every dollar spent on new drugs.

A similar study from the journal Medical Care found that every dollar expended on drugs that treat blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes translates into $4 to $7 in savings elsewhere.

Cutting-edge medicines are the product of in-lab innovations. The government can do more to support that work. For starters, public schools need to improve science and math education. America’s youth are the medical researchers of tomorrow. But too many aren’t developing the basic cognitive tools necessary to enter the field.

Lawmakers should also encourage scientists and firms to undertake potentially risky drug development projects. New public financing for promising lines of research would expedite the discovery of new treatments and yield long-term cost-savings.

Finally, our leaders must streamline the drug-approval process. At present, that process can take years. Oftentimes, the prospect of an arduous wait for approval discourages researchers from even starting the expensive research process. Safe, effective medications shouldn’t run up against undue or arbitrary barriers. Regulatory delays can actually increase health costs by keeping potentially cost-lowering treatments off the market.

Our quest to fix our health care system is far from over. But our leaders will never complete the task at hand if they regress into petty partisan bickering. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle must acknowledge the reform effort's mistakes and put forward policies that will fix them.

Douglas E. Schoen was a campaign consultant for more than 30 years and is the author of "Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System."