Avoiding partisan fireworks

On July 4, 1776, America’s earliest political leaders declared independence from royal sovereignty and established the historic foundation for our system of self-government.

As we celebrate America’s 233rd birthday, today’s political leaders face historic challenges with the troubled U.S. economy, two wars, the terrorist threat, and unsustainable financial troubles confronting the two giant public entitlement programs serving the disabled and retirees.

Congress is also considering solutions to make healthcare coverage accessible and affordable for all Americans. Spiraling healthcare costs climb with a seemingly insatiable appetite. The healthcare system represents 17 percent of the gross national product, and healthcare spending is projected to reach $2.5 trillion in 2009.

An overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system would impact every American. Acute shortcomings in the system today reward ineffective patient care and drive costs higher. Reform needs to help the uninsured and include measures for preventive medicine, coordinated care and advanced technologies that result in lower costs and better outcomes for patients.

As ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, I’m working with chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to try to reach consensus on legislation to rein in skyrocketing healthcare spending; rework the fee-for-service payment system and root out inefficiencies that today reward quantity instead of quality of care; and create affordable options for the uninsured to buy health insurance.

There’s no shortage of ideas to reform the healthcare system. Most fall far short of offsets or revenue to pay for them. Some of my colleagues favor universal coverage financed entirely by the taxpaying public. Others favor a government-run insurance option that would allow anyone to purchase coverage run by federal agencies in Washington.

I caution those who favor driving roughly 120 million more Americans into a taxpayer-financed, government-run insurance system. The federal government is an unfair competitor in the health insurance market and would likely run insurers in the private sector out of business. What’s more, the U.S. treasury is considered a cash cow by wrongdoers who have yet to find a government program they haven’t tried to swindle, including Medicare. Creating a massive new government-run healthcare system creates an image of the federal treasury morphing into a wedge of Swiss cheese filled with holes and bureaucratic mazes for wrongdoers to exploit.

Finally, while we work to confront rising healthcare costs and make coverage affordable, financing reforms in a responsible way is just as important to every American.

Washington already has taxpayers on the hook for $787 billion to bail out the banks and another $800 billion is in the pipeline to stimulate the economy. In fact, the federal government is on track to rack up a $1.7 trillion deficit by Sept. 30.

The deficit and public debt are records in terms of their share of the economy, and the president has correctly described their levels as unsustainable. The impending insolvency of the Medicare and Social Security trust funds further increases the debt burden on the next generation and beyond. It seems inconceivable and, in fact, irresponsible for Washington to saddle taxpayers with another permanent public entitlement program that is projected to cost $150 billion per year. Instead, we need changes that bend the healthcare spending growth-curve downward.

Like many Iowans, I’m skeptical that nationalizing healthcare would make America’s healthcare problems go away. Without cost-cutting restrictions, a massive new government entitlement would crush the federal budget. A national healthcare board would inevitably lead to healthcare rationing and put the government in charge of which treatments people can get and what doctors they can see.

The nation’s Founders reasoned that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed.” The people’s government should not overstep that boundary. For more than two centuries, Americans have lived the dream envisioned by the delegates to the Second Continental Congress: pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Americans want competition in a free marketplace, not rationing in a government-run bureaucracy.

Washington has waded heavily into the private sector by shipping boatloads of tax dollars out to stimulate the economy, bankroll banks and recharge the domestic automobile industry. Let’s not put Uncle Sam in charge of medicine, too.

As we prepare for Fourth of July fanfare with friends and family, political leaders in Washington would serve the public good by defusing partisan pyrotechnics and seeking responsible reforms to drive down healthcare costs and steer more Americans into the ranks of the insured.

Grassley is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.