As we prepare for the 110th Congress, healthcare reforms undoubtedly will continue to dominate the agenda of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Following two years of milestone achievements in health care policy, I am confident that the committee and the Senate as a whole will continue its aggressive work to respond to the healthcare priorities facing most Americans.
Health care costs and health care quality continue to be at the forefront of worries facing U.S. families. An October survey conducted by ABC News, the Kaiser Family Foundation and USA Today found that most Americans are dissatisfied with the health care system. An overwhelming 80 percent think the costs are too high, while 54 percent are dissatisfied with the quality of care.
During the Congress just completed, the HELP Committee set a benchmark for working in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion, and I do not expect that standard to slip as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) takes the gavel next year. Sen. Kennedy and I sometimes disagree on certain issues, but we have worked hard to find common ground on healthcare issues and share a commitment to improving the health, education, work, and retirement security of all Americans.Among the issues I expect the HELP Committee to act on over the two years include:
- Health IT: Some of the most serious challenges facing healthcare today—medical errors, inconsistent quality and rising costs—can begin to be addressed through the effective implementation of available health information technology. In fact, a recent RAND Corp. study suggests that better application of existing technology could reduce healthcare costs in the U.S. by $162 billion per year. However, to realize these savings, we must create an infrastructure that will allow greater interoperability, and I look forward to working with Sen. Kennedy to ensure that we send the President a health IT bill next year.
- Biodefense/pandemic flu preparedness: One of the most pressing challenges we will face in the years to come is protecting Americans from biological terrorist attacks, pandemic influenza or another form of public health emergency. We must work to improve the Bioshield Program to spur the development of a vibrant biodefense industry, and we must continue to build the infrastructure of the U.S. vaccine industry so that we are prepared to respond to emerging threats. Only by fostering the development of new vaccines and antibiotics can we address and mitigate the threat of infectious disease in America and around the world.
- Drug safety and FDA reform: Improving drug safety and reforming the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are critical to ensuring the health and safety of Americans. Last year, Sen. Kennedy and I introduced the bipartisan Enhancing Drug Safety and Innovation Act to bring greater consistency, transparency and accountability to the drug approval process. This legislation will create a more structured framework for resolving safety concerns and leverage advances in science and technology to build a more effective and efficient FDA.
Congress must renew the Prescription Drug User Fee Act and the Medical Device User Fee and Modernization Act to ensure that the FDA has the tools and the resources to test the safety of new drugs and devices. Congress must also reauthorize the Best Pharmaceuticals for Children Act, which offers additional patent life on new drugs in exchange for necessary studies conducted in children; and the Pediatric Research Equity Act to give the FDA the authority to require these studies in certain circumstances. This is must-pass legislation with considerable bipartisan support, and we must not delay in tackling these issues.
- Small-business health plans: I have sponsored and will continue to push for bipartisan small-business health plan legislation that would allow business and trade associations to band their members together and offer group health coverage on a national or regional basis. A Census Bureau report released in September revealed that 46.6 million Americans do not have health insurance—that's 15.9 percent of the population. As premiums continue to skyrocket, fewer employers are offering coverage, and those that do are asking their employees to pay a greater share.
These Americans and their families have no safety net to help cover the rising cost of health insurance that their employers can no longer provide. Adding millions of working families to entitlement programs like Medicaid is an unaffordable, unsustainable and ultimately undesirable solution. Rather, we must work to reduce the costs of health insurance for business and working families to make healthcare more affordable and accessible.
- Stem-cell research: I believe that we can and should work together to reach a solution on stem cell research that respects our diversity of views on human embryos, but still pushes science forward. Scientific exploration is important and we should do everything we can to further knowledge of our world, but not at the expense of disregarding the moral viewpoints of tens of millions of Americans who don't believe their taxes should pay for something they find abhorrent. Researchers across the world are exploring different ways to create stem-cell lines without harming human embryos, and I will continue to strongly support a bill we can all unite behind that would encourage the development of these stem cell lines. When these researchers are successful, the dilemma over embryonic stem cell research will fall away.
The views presented in this commentary are those of the author and should not be attributed to The Commonwealth Fund or its directors, officers, or staff.