For the sake of all Americans, the time for reform has come

Today, the diagnosis for our nation’s healthcare system is bleak. Costs are skyrocketing, the quality of care doesn’t always measure up, and too many Americans are unable to get the coverage they need. What’s more, these maladies are infecting our entire economy. Healthcare spending is outpacing economic growth at an alarming rate. Businesses are straining to provide health insurance for their employees and remain competitive in a global marketplace. And the economy as a whole lost over $200 billion in worker productivity in 2007 because of the poor health of people who can’t get care.

The good news is that a prescription is on the way to remedy our ailing healthcare system and help us achieve long-term economic stability. Work in the Finance and HELP Committees to reform our broken health care system is already well under way. And stakeholder groups from every part of the healthcare system are in close cooperation with those efforts.

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In our view, there has never before been a moment like this for healthcare reform. An overhaul of the system is not only possible; it is imminent. And the impact it will have on the American economy — and importantly the family economy — will be resounding.

Healthcare reform will lower premiums and out-of-pocket costs for American families. It will free up cash for American businesses and make them more competitive around the world. And, in this time of economic uncertainty, healthcare reform will cut the country’s debt and make Medicare sustainable for the next generation.

And the benefits of healthcare reform can’t come soon enough. If we fail to reform our ailing healthcare system, the cost of health insurance will eat up half the family budget for most American households in just seven years. Businesses could see their healthcare costs double within 10 years. And spending on government insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid could double by 2019.

The case for change is clear. It’s time to act.

Both of our committees will vote on comprehensive healthcare reform this month. We and our staffs have been working together closely to ensure that both committees report similar and complementary legislation that can be quickly merged into one bill for consideration on the Senate floor before the August recess.

Since November, we’ve been meeting with other key Senate leaders from both sides of the aisle. We think of this group as a Board of Directors for healthcare reform. The group meets regularly to discuss progress, address senators’ concerns, and reaffirm our commitment to working together.

For both of us, reforming the nation’s healthcare system to cut cost, protect individual choices, and provide affordable, high-quality coverage is our top priority.

Our current system is not focused on quality or efficiency. Today, healthcare providers are paid for every test run, procedure ordered, or scan conducted, with no regard for actual patient outcomes. Healthcare reform will change the way we buy healthcare, so we reward quality of care instead of quantity of procedures. Creating incentives for healthcare providers to work together with also make the system more effective. When doctors coordinate closely with each other, they are less likely to repeat tests and scans, and more likely to reduce costly hospital readmissions. And placing a higher value on primary care and preventive services will ensure people get the care they need quickly before their health problems grow dangerous and costly.

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Healthcare reform must also make healthcare more affordable and more accessible for every American. People who like the coverage they have today will be able to keep it. And improvements to our system will drive down costs for those folks, too.

Certainly, healthcare coverage is a moral imperative. And it is also an economic necessity. Today, uninsured Americans, without access to primary and preventive services, have no choice but to turn to emergency rooms when their medical needs become dire. The cost of uncompensated care for the uninsured is passed along to those who do have insurance to the tune of more than $1,000 a year in increased premiums. Extending coverage to every American will significantly reduce uncompensated care in our system and would provide access to preventive services that save money and keep people healthy.

Another priority of healthcare reform is to bring our healthcare system into the 21st century. That effort begins with an investment in health information technology. Up-to-the-minute technology will ensure that a doctor in Glendive, Mont., or Lenox, Mass., has the same resources as every doctor at the Mayo Clinic. The investment we make will extend to significantly more research on what treatments work best for which patients. A greater focus on this evidence-based medicine will make every patient healthier.

And we will go after fraud, waste and abuse that bloat costs in our system today. Experts agree that there is more than $60 billion of fraud each year in the healthcare system. We’re going to crack down on those scams and tighten loopholes that cost us our healthcare dollars.

We believe that fixing America’s broken healthcare system should not be a Democratic priority or a Republican priority. Healthcare reform is an American priority. That’s why we are working across the aisle to deliver the healthcare reform the American people expect and deserve.

The time for healthcare reform in American is now. We are confident that, working together, we will succeed.

Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Kennedy is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

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