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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Nixon's plan of 71 and Obama's plan of today-similar?

Article written by Jim Toedtman, editor of the AARP Bulletin in October issue.

“A sweeping new program,” President Richard M. Nixon called it when he introduced his bold national health plan in 1971. “One that builds on the strengths of the present system, and one that does not destroy these strengths. One based on partnership, not paternalism.”

Nixon’s plan required employers to provide health care insurance for their employees. It provided federal subsidies for the poor and created rural health clinics and a network of state committees to set industry standards, guarantee basic coverage and coordinate insurance for the self-employed. In the process, it would have extended health care coverage to almost all Americans.

The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, author of his own national plan, led the critics. “It’s really a partnership between the administration and insurance companies,” he raged. “It’s not a partnership between patients and doctors of this nation.”

That was then. On reflection, Kennedy came to view the Nixon proposal as a missed opportunity. “We should have jumped on that,” he told the Boston Globe earlier this year. In the years since Democrats rejected Nixon’s “sweeping new program,” battle lines have hardened and the partisan breach has widened. And costs have soared. When Nixon proposed his plan, health care spending accounted for less than $100 billion, 7 percent of the $1.4 trillion U.S. economy. Today, it accounts for $2.3 trillion, approximately 17 percent of the economy. And the number of uninsured has nearly doubled—to 46.7 million last year.

Republicans have championed the free market as the key to reform. They stymied the last major overhaul effort 16 years ago. With the help of the drug industry and AARP, they expanded Medicare with a prescription drug plan. They created tax-free health savings accounts (and named them after Republican chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee). As recently as April, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to convert Medicare into a system of vouchers that future retirees could use to purchase private insurance. And they seem to have set their sights on scuttling President Obama’s health care initiative.

Democrats, just as stridently, have pursued successive iterations of Kennedy’s original, federally funded and regulated plan. The Clinton administration’s public and private plan, hatched in private and in suffocating detail, collapsed.

Today, with control of Congress and the White House, Democrats are advancing Obama’s plan, a combination of private, employer-provided and individual-based coverage and care. It’s striking how closely that resembles the plan outlined by Nixon four decades ago.

There’s a lesson here, and an important one that Kennedy learned four decades too late: Don’t allow partisanship and ideology to blind you to opportunity. But who in the nation’s all but dysfunctional capital has learned Kennedy’s lesson? Who has the common sense and the willingness to listen? Who will set aside the partisanship that has paralyzed the health care debate? Who will step forward and seize the opportunity before them?

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