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Solutions or Showmanship at the Summit?



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The White House believes it has identified a new way to put Republicans on the spot on health reform — a big bipartisan summit that forces both parties to explain their ideas before C-SPAN cameras.

The president reportedly plans to bring with him a copy of the merged House/Senate bill that was within days of being enacted before Scott Brown’s election slammed the brakes on their hugely unpopular legislation.

During his interview before the Super Bowl, Mr. Obama challenged Republicans to come up with specific plans: “How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance market so people with preexisting conditions, for example, can get health care? How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don’t have health insurance can get it? What are your ideas, specifically?”

The Republicans will bring their own legislation and ideas. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his team will take a “step-by-step approach” that doesn’t try to solve every problem in one gigantic bill. Mr. McConnell signaled the Republican approach, saying “We know there are a number of issues with bipartisan support that we can start with when the [Democrats’] 2,700-page bill is put on the shelf.”

But that’s not the president’s plan. He will use the forum to try to explain — One. More. Time. Very Slowly — that his overhaul approach is the only one that will work.

The summit idea grew out of the president’s performance before the House GOP retreat in Baltimore ten days ago.

Despite virtually no preparation time after the president’s surprise request that the event be televised, Republicans offered focused and informed questions, engaging in a dialogue over issues ranging from health reform to budget deficits to transparency in political decisions.

During the session, Mr. Obama forecast what is likely to be his approach during the health summit, scheduled for February 25 at Blair House across the street from the White House.

Acknowledging that Republicans actually do have ideas for health reform, the president told the Baltimore gathering that many them were incorporated into legislation written by the Democratic leadership, including:

* Allowing inter-state purchase of health insurance
* Catastrophic health insurance for young people
* High-risk pools for uninsured people with pre-existing conditions
* Small business health plans
* Incentives for wellness
* Allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ policies

Republicans might add to their list ideas incorporated in the platforms of both Senators McCain and Obama during the campaign, including agreement on the importance of:

* Targeted financial help for the uninsured
* Incentives for prevention and early treatment
* Coordination of care and disease management
* Greater use of information technology and electronic medical records
* New approaches to “best practices” in treatment

There are serious differences about how to structure the underlying policy on all of these items. But these lists nonetheless could be a start for a bipartisan conversation.

However, we likely are too far into the political season to expect a genuine exchange of ideas. Democrats believe their interlocking chain of mandates, taxes, and expansion of government control over virtually every aspect of health care is the only viable solution.

And that is the basic disconnect that will make agreement so difficult. Republicans would never agree, nor should they, to plugging a few of their ideas into the monstrous bill the White House and congressional leaders have devised. This legislation cannot be redeemed. They know that.

Starting over is the only genuine solution, but the president has taken that off the table. A White House statement Sunday said Obama is “adamant about passing comprehensive reform similar to the bills passed by the House and the Senate.” That clearly shows the intent of the summit is about showmanship, not solutions.

So health care will again dominate the airwaves for the rest of February with little to show for it except a battle over who can score the most political points.

Beleaguered House Democrats are likely among those most discouraged by the latest announcement since they had hoped to change the conversation to jobs and the economy as they head home for recess next week.

Nope. Health care will stay in the spotlight. For better or, most likely, for worse.



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