This week, the president is having his first health-care summit. He has proposed changes in the budget for what he calls a down payment for future health care. He signed a bill to provide more children with access to health services, and on Saturday evening he offered the job of secretary of Health and Human Services to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, D-Kan.
Health care is the big elephant in the living room, and no one has successfully taken it on. The Democrats put a kind of universal health care in their platform in 1948, which was 61 years ago. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to tackle health care as first lady with the slogan "health care that is always there." She was out-maneuvered, and the plan was squashed with the help of some very clever Harry and Louise ads. This president has learned from the mistakes of others and is going to take it at a slower pace.
However, the other side of the aisle decided to preempt the president last week by having their own conference with their own solutions. No, it was not the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, where Newt Gingrich was a star. Instead, Republicans held a "Health Care that Works" conference, and Gingrich was there, again, in a starring role. He can always reinvent himself. He became speaker because he was able to speak to the average voter. His Contract for America resonated with millions of Americans. It was simple and clear. Many of his health-care ideas are the same. They are clear, simple and something with which most Americans can relate.
Advertisement - story continues below
Gingrich began the Center for Health Transformation in 2003 by branding it "Better health, lower cost." As a liberal, I am suspect of the Republican motives with regard to health care and the free market. I spent years working for a "for profit" health-care company where there were corporate meetings devoted to making sure our managers were increasing the amount of tests given to patients to boost the bottom line. So, I come to the Gingrich plans with a jaundiced eye.
Jaundiced eye or not, some of Gingrich's ideas are sound and should be taken into consideration by the Obama team. His 10-point plan has some good ideas even if it a bit biased toward limiting liability, which is the hallmark of Republican thought.
The Gingrich plan seeks to reward health-care groups that adopt evidenced-based practices with higher reimbursements. He wants to develop new ways of paying for health care that emphasizes patient wellness. Transparency is another goal, which would include price and quality information from all government health programs including Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs. He wants to increase the ability to self-report medical errors in exchange for limited liability. The FAA adopted these self-reporting practices years ago, and it has worked to make our skies much safer, as the data is then collated and airlines can train pilots to avoid the mistakes others have made. In addition, he wants to give health-care plans, both public and private, the latitude to experiment with prevention and wellness programs by redesigning health insurance that encourages wellness.
Advertisement - story continues below
Liberal, conservative or anything in between, it is worth remembering that it was Newt Gingrich who ushered us into the 21st century by developing Thomas.gov. We can now search bills, read them as they are being considered and follow their progress though the maze of committees. Never behind the times when it comes to technology, he has a 10-point system to create an electronic health information platform, which would include open-source technology so hospitals and other providers do not have to spend valuable dollars and time reinventing the wheel. The president's broadband initiative could tie in to make this information system work and save millions of dollars.
I have been around Washington, D.C., long enough to be skeptical of most statistics and facts I read. But if Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation's information is correct, it is enough to make Florence Nightingale turn over in her grave. One eye-popping fact is that in 2007, Florida accounted for "80 percent of drugs billed across the United States for Medicare beneficiaries with HIV/AIDS even though the region only had about one of 10 eligible patients."
There are cases of sham companies and putting homeless people on vans and ambulances so they would use hospital services they did not need. I would have never believed that this was really happening had I not sat through countless meetings designed to drive up health-care costs for profit in the mid-1980s. One solid idea out of the Gingrich shop is to fully fund the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general. Imagine that! Real government oversight.
Do I really trust the Republicans on oversight? Not a chance. Their record is not stellar. However, other than perhaps running for president in 2012, the former speaker has nothing to gain from this. He has as much consulting, speaking and financial support as he could possibly want. He has some great ideas, and the Obama administration should invite him to be an integral part of its reform effort.