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The Health Summit: A Dramatic Flop

As a dramatic feature, yesterday’s high-profile health care summit in Washington was a flop.

That is, for all the breathtaking headlines inspired by the partisan showdown, there was exactly zero character development. Republicans went into the building both opposed to the Democrats’ comprehensive reform plans and calling for a do-over — and they left feeling the same way. Democrats, for their part, have been convinced that their proposals represent the right prescription for fixing the nation’s dismal health care system — and their views today remain unchanged as well.

Recognizing, then, that the two sides have agreed to disagree about what reform should look like, it’s worth pointing out the main focus of the disharmony, which is this: Democrats hope to enact a plan that would cover a huge chunk of the nation’s uninsured population (currently 46 million people) by taxing high-income folks and adding fees to medical services companies that will surely profit from the new business. Republicans, on the other hand, have no intention of finding ways to cover most of these folks. (“We just can’t afford this,” House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said during the summit.)

Or, as Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote today:

The most important thing Republicans think is that if there are Americans who can’t afford the insurance policies that private insurers are willing to offer, then that’s their problem — there’s nothing the government or the rest of us should do about it.

This is hardly news. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee and a participant at yesterday’s pow-wow, said in no uncertain terms last month that, “We’re not trying to get to universal coverage.” He was talking about Republicans.

Instead, the GOP plans to call for loosening regulations to allow patients to buy insurance policies from across state lines. The theory is that the increased competition would solve the access problem by making health plans more affordable — the Milton Friedman strategy for covering the uninsured. Nevermind that it would likely cause most companies to move their headquarters to states where regulations are most lax — much like all those credit-card companies have set up P.O. boxes in Delaware and South Dakota.

Indeed, private insurance companies have had decades to lure these tens-of-millions of uninsured Americans into buying coverage by dropping rates. That they haven’t done so says quite a bit about where their priorities rest.

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