Few national issues are as personal or as complex as health care. The outcome of the current debate affects us all. Americans of every political stripe agree we need health care reform. The skyrocketing cost of care crushes American businesses even as millions of Americans go without access to the full continuum of care.

Given that our nation now borders on bankruptcy, few issues weigh more heavily on the American people than the thought of another trillion-dollar entitlement program. If the times were not so desperate Washington’s failure to work together would not be so shameful. However, what we witnessed on Thursday was political arrogance at its worst. We painfully watched Washington squander a golden opportunity to serve We the People—we watched a health care summit that never was.

The alleged purpose of the summit was to find common ground, to search for real and reachable answers to the difficult challenges that face our nation’s health care system. America hoped beyond hope that our government leaders would set politics aside, even if for only a moment, to serve the good of the people. But this was not to be.

At its core, health care is about the individual patient, the average American citizen. Viewed through that prism, President Obama’s approach to the health care summit is hard to explain. Last week’s CNN poll revealed only 25% of Americans want Congress to pass current legislation. Nearly double that, 48%, want Congress to scrap everything and start over with a clean slate. The rest have given up on the process altogether.

Given that President Obama’s plan has held on to the support of only one in four Americans, why did he begin the summit by refusing to honor Senator Alexander’s request to take reconciliation off the table? In effect, within the first few minutes, the president essentially told Republicans they must either agree with his plan, or he would ram current legislation through the Senate with 51 votes. The chance to start over with a clean sheet of paper and build on areas of agreement—the entire concept of a summit—was never a real possibility.

Republicans advanced several limited steps to move health care toward fiscal solvency while emphasizing patient and physician autonomy. Yet the Democrats rejected the concept of a stepwise approach in favor of sweeping reform crammed down the throats of 75% of American citizens (25% agree with the plan).

Americans are innately suspicious of sweeping government reform. They desperately want the problems with our health care system fixed, but they want the government to leave what works well enough alone. Voters are growing weary of the pork, payoffs, bribes, and backroom deals that now consume our capital. The Democrats have cut a deal with every major player at the table in an effort to gain control over health care reform and the American people know it.
The summit’s most poignant statement was made by Senator Kyl (R-Ariz.):

I think you framed the issue very well just a moment ago. Because there are some fundamental differences between us here that we cannot paper over. And Mr. President, when you said this is a philosophical debate and it is a legitimate debate, I agree with that. We do not agree about the fundamental question of who should be mostly in change. And you identified this question as central. Do you trust the states or do you trust Washington? Do you trust patients and doctors making the decisions or do you trust Washington?

This philosophical divide explains the inability of our president to hold a true summit -- a roundtable discussion designed to find common ground to fix the problems that face our nation’s health care system. The two sides on Thursday were engaged in a tug-of-war, pulling on opposite ends of the rope. Any reform moves power over health care decision making one way or the other—either toward Washington or toward patients and physicians.

The debate was not about finding solutions to the challenges that confront the American health care system. If it had been, enough common ground existed to agree on a series of limited reforms that would have easily passed both the House and Senate. In fact, the first three hours of the summit contained repeated statements from the Democratic majority about how close the two sides were.

However, the real debate was about the *transfer of power.* This explains why our government held the summit that wasn’t and wasted a golden opportunity to rise above partisan politics. In the mean time We the People still wait for true patient-centered health care reform with growing unrest.

C. L. Gray, M.D. is president, Physicians for Reform. For more visit www.PhysiciansForReform.org

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