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Experts at HELP Hearing List Health Care Woes and What Needs to Be Done

By Mary Agnes Carey, CQ HealthBeat

January 10, 2007 -- Witnesses representing business, labor, and think tanks asked Congress on Wednesday for help with controlling health care costs and reducing the number of uninsured Americans.

"We don't have a problem, we have a crisis. And it's getting worse," Service Employees International Union President Andrew L. Stern told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. "The solution is no longer a matter of policy—but politics."

Stern and other witnesses repeated well-known problems with the nation's health care system, such as rising costs, variations in quality, and a continued increase in the number of uninsured. Families worry over the cost of health care—and fear the economic chaos a loss of coverage could cause—and businesses say the cost of health care is hurting their ability to compete in the global marketplace.

Larry Burton, executive director of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers, said a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's health care system should include items such as greater focus on information technology, wellness initiatives, and consumer-directed health care.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who will be chairman of the HELP panel in the 110th Congress, said Wednesday's session was one of several planned for the weeks ahead to give committee members a chance to talk with experts from fields under the panel's jurisdiction.

Kennedy said Congress must take action to give all Americans health care coverage by 2010, adding that a plan recently adopted by his home state could serve as an example of how partisan and ideological divisions could be resolved for the common good.

By the end of February, more than 100,000 Massachusetts residents who did not previously have health care coverage will be covered thanks to the plan, said John McDonough, executive director of Health Care for All, a Massachusetts group that supports the state's universal health care plan.

McDonough said the state's plan of shared responsibility—between government, individuals and employers—has helped make it successful.

Kennedy said it was critical for Congress to take action now to cover the nation's uninsured.

"The stakes couldn't be higher," he said. "Too many trends in health care are going in the wrong direction. Insurance coverage is down. Costs are up, and America is heading to the bottom of the league of major nations in important measures of the quality of care."

Witnesses urged lawmakers to act this year to reauthorize and fully fund the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which they said had proved to be a success in its first 10 years of implementation in providing health care coverage to millions of children who would not have it otherwise.

Other ideas advanced during the session included delinking the relationship between employers and health care coverage, giving employers flexibility to form purchasing pools to gain lower costs for insurance, giving consumers more information about the quality of care they receive, and comparing the effectiveness of the U.S. health care system to other nations.

"Other countries are achieving universal coverage, much lower spending per capita, and better health outcomes," Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis said in prepared testimony.

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