Getting Moving on Health Care

People say nothing is happening in Washington on health care. They say the only thing that has happened is that the crisis has gotten worse. They’re right.

But while Washington waits, Wall Street has acted. Too many big businesses are deciding that to compete and win in the global economy, many jobs no longer will come with healthcare.

While companies such as General Motors struggle under enormous health care obligations, companies such as Wal-Mart are opting out of employers’ traditional health care responsibilities. Wal-Mart currently insures fewer than half of its employees — that’s 800,000 workers left outside the system, some turning to Medicaid just to get health care at all. It’s not right, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Good corporate citizens are coping with a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace. GM pays $1,500 in health care costs on every vehicle it manufactures. Toyota pays only $200.

We’re stuck with a 20th century health care system that just doesn’t work for a 21st century economy.

The traditional employer-based health care system can no longer meet all our needs. Costs are too high, and businesses overseas are operating on a whole different playing field.

health care for a family of four now costs more than a minimum-wage worker earns in a year. Certainly, things have gotten worse. Under this administration’s watch, the number of uninsured Americans has grown by 6 million and premiums are up a whopping 73%.

This affects all of us. It matters if the kid down the block isn’t immunized. It matters to your tax burden when simple, treatable illnesses turn into expensive emergency room visits — often the only option for those without insurance. And it matters if we care about our moral obligation to others.

We need to cut health care costs. And we need a health care system that ensures quality, affordable health care for every American man, woman, and child.

We need big ideas and bold solutions, not more of timid Washington tinkering around the edges. If Americans can discover cures for the most devastating illnesses, we can surely find a way to make sure that all Americans benefit from those cures.

Right now the most expensive 0.4% of insurance claims account for 20% of all health care costs. We need to lower costs to businesses with a new federal reinsurance plan for catastrophic care — those with the most serious, and expensive, illnesses. Reinsurance is a simple concept: It’s insurance for insurers; a way for health plans to manage their risks and lower your costs.

Second, no child in America should lack health insurance. Leaving 11 million American children uninsured is wrong and, from the administration that brought us “No Child Left Behind,” it is breathtakingly hypocritical.

Most single moms raising two kids on $36,000 a year don’t qualify for any help. My Kids First plan would change that, covering all children up to three times the poverty level.

Finally, it is untenable for 35 million adults to go without insurance. We need to use every weapon in our arsenal until everyone is covered, including making the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program affordable and accessible for everyone in America with targeted tax credits for small businesses, middle-class families, and people between jobs. Members of Congress give themselves great health care and give taxpayers the bill — if it’s good enough for senators and congressmen, it should be good enough for every American who wants to choose it.

Doctors follow the motto “First do no harm.” So should Washington. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel on healthcare; we need to take what’s already working for those of us who are lucky and make it work for the millions of Americans being passed by. And we need to improve quality and lower costs for those with coverage today.

Americans have a choice. If Congress won’t fix healthcare, then Americans will fix Congress.

US Senator John F. Kerry is a Democrat from Massachusetts.