If Democrats Don't Pivot On Health Care They're Doomed

While the news reports after the recently concluded health care summit largely trumpeted the failure of the two parties to reach agreement, the reality is actually a lot more complicated and even encouraging. The fact of the matter is that the Blair House event ultimately demonstrated a substantial amount of agreement between the two parties and the possibility of achieving a bipartisan agreement relatively quickly.

Reports indicate that the president is finally coming to grips with the fact that the American people just don’t support the comprehensive reform package that passed the House and the Senate. And regardless, it will be quite difficult for the president to gain enough support from election-nervous lawmakers on his package. Reportedly, the White House has drawn up alternative legislation – a “Plan B” -- that’s more limited in scope, covering about 15 million uninsured and only making modest expansions to the public insurance system.

This is a positive development. It means that the president is willing to reconsider some of his commitments and is adjusting his expectations to the political realities of the country. However, to be successful he can’t just be appending some of the Republican ideas to a bad bill. He needs to truly follow a plan B that takes the best elements of both sides and incorporates them into a new. In doing so, there’s no reason why this can’t quickly become the President’s “Plan A.”

This plan starts with Democrats going back to the drawing board. They need to develop a bipartisan bill that’s scaled down and targeted to specific problems in our health system. And the basis of this new bill should be the policies that find support on both sides of the aisle.

Lawmakers should start with prohibiting health insurers from denying coverage to customers based on pre-existing conditions, or altering a patient’s policy after they get sick. As Republican Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) remarked at the summit: “We all agree on prohibiting insurance companies from arbitrarily canceling insurance policies. That's a no-brainer."

Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) described the practice of discriminating based on pre-existing conditions as “cruel,” going on to say that “it is capricious and it is done only to enhance the bottom-line.”

Both lawmakers are right. It’s unfair to deny sick patients health coverage. And it’s unconscionable to kick people off insurance once their sick, forcing patients bare their medical bills all on their own.

Reforming insurance regulations to prohibit this practice could form the backbone of the new reform package.

Both parties also agree the importance of moving forward – quickly – with the adoption of health information technology. Too many doctor’s offices and hospitals continue to use paper records. This leads to long delays, subpar treatment, and a host of other inefficiencies. This reform is long overdue.

Another area of agreement is malpractice reform. Baseless torts are costing this country well over a $100 million a year. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who was once a practicing OB/GYN, was particularly forceful on this issue at the summit. He said that “doctors are risk averse to the tort system and the extortion system that’s out there today.”

At the end of the event, President Obama specifically named malpractice reform as an idea he’s going to give greater consideration.

Curbing insurance company discrimination and reforming malpractice would go a long way toward righting the health system.

If the president decides to forgo compromise and move forward with his original bill, only two things could happen -- both spell political disaster for Democrats.

He could fail -- with moderate Democrats voting “nay” out of fear of political pushback. In that case, Obama would look incredibly weak. Health care has been the defining issue of his presidency so far. And the perception of inefficacy could cost Democrats control of both chambers in November.

Alternatively, the Democrats could jam the existing health bill through Congress via reconciliation, a Senate procedure that lets them ignore Republicans. But that would be an act of just the sort of hyper-partisanship Americans have rejected time and again. Indeed, a recent CNN poll found that nearly three and four Americans want lawmakers to either abandon the existing bill and start over, or drop health care reform altogether.

The nation can’t afford to drop health care reform. So Democrats must move forward with a package that can pass.

With the recent passage of the jobs bill in the Senate, Democrats proved that bipartisanship is still possible. Fully five Republicans, including Republican Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who recently won Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, broke rank and voted for the legislation.

Now is the time for the president to make good on his campaign promise to bring post-partisanship to Washington. There is room for agreement on health care. Pundits who claim the debate is irreconcilable are just plain wrong. Democrats need to hone in on the policies with Republican support, and pass a bill as soon as possible that makes those policies a reality.

Douglas E. Schoen, a campaign consultant for more than 30 years, and a Fox News contributor, is the author of "The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grass Roots to the White House " (Henry Holt, 2010).