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Healthcare reform is a job for grown-ups

January 21, 2011|DAVID LAZARUS

Get over your bad selves.

That's basically what former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist told his GOP compadres this week as they set about trying to dismantle the national healthcare reform law.

"It is not the bill that I would have drafted," he said during an appearance at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. "But it is the law of the land and it is the platform, the fundamental platform, upon which all future efforts to make that system better, for that patient, for that family, will be based."

Frist's high-minded approach to healthcare reform stood in stark contrast to Republican members of the House of Representatives, who voted unanimously Wednesday to repeal the reform law and replace it with ... what?

That's still unclear, even though it's been 10 months since President Obama signed the legislation into law, and even though Republican candidates campaigned for much of last year on ending "Obamacare."

The repeal bill will now likely perish in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and in any case would almost certainly face a presidential veto if it miraculously made it that far. But House Republicans say they'll still obstruct the healthcare law by blocking funds to implement its provisions.

It's hard not to think of a bunch of spoiled children throwing a tantrum because they didn't get their way.

The healthcare reform law, while imperfect, is a done deal. The prudent thing to do at this point is to build on it rather than waste time with fruitless -- and needlessly divisive -- political grandstanding.

And the Republicans have outdone themselves for misinforming Americans about what the reform law will and will not do.

Aside from scurrilous talk of "death panels" and "socialized medicine," House Republicans have reimagined healthcare reform as a jobs bill, rather than as a long-overdue revamping of how medical treatment is accessed and delivered in a country with about 50 million people lacking insurance coverage.

They titled their legislation the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." They claimed that 650,000 jobs will be lost if the law is allowed to stand.

And don't take their word for it, House Republicans insisted. That alarming job-loss figure is attributable to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Except it isn't.

What the budget office actually estimated in a report last year was that the reform law "will reduce the amount of labor used in the economy by a small amount -- roughly half a percent -- primarily by reducing the amount of labor that workers choose to supply."

In other words, there will be a small reduction in the amount of work that gets done because some people will voluntarily choose to work less. For example, a worker might retire early because healthcare will be more readily available.

That's not an estimate of job loss or production. It's an estimate of labor performed by workers.

But House Republicans donned their fuzzy-math hats and seized upon that half-percent number as representing a portion of the roughly 131 million jobs in the U.S. economy. Half a percent of 131 million is 650,000. Therefore, 650,000 jobs will be lost.

That's not what the budget office said or even implied. If not a deliberate invention by healthcare reform foes, it was a gross misreading of what the budget office had actually concluded.

And even though reform critics warn of a pricey new entitlement program, the budget office estimated that the cost of the law would actually be more than offset by tax revenue and projected Medicare spending cuts.

Moreover, the budget office took a close look at the Republicans' repeal bill and determined that it would increase the federal budget deficit by about $230 billion over the next decade.

House Republicans chose to ignore that last finding. And in any case, they specifically excluded the repeal bill from their own self-imposed rule that no legislation increase the deficit.

As with all major bills, neither side was entirely satisfied with the healthcare reform law. Conservatives had to swallow insurance mandates intended to spread the risk of expanded coverage as widely as possible. Progressives had to forgo a public option that might have made private insurers more accountable.

But here are some of the important things the law does do:

* It makes coverage available to more than 30 million of the 50 million people who now lack insurance. That should have a profound effect on the healthcare system and on taxpayers who would otherwise be called upon to fund visits by the uninsured to emergency rooms.

* It expands coverage for young people by allowing dependent children up to age 26 to stay on their parents' health plan. With the unemployment rate so high, this is a boon to families nationwide.

* It offers a vast array of free or low-cost tests to diagnose problems before they become serious. Preventive tests include screening for high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer, as well as counseling for smoking cessation and weight loss.

* As of 2014, no insurer will be allowed to deny coverage to anyone with a preexisting medical condition. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated this week that as many as 129 million Americans under age 65 have such a condition.

Conservatives might have ideological differences with some aspects of the reform law. Those differences should be respected.

But House Republicans have no business attempting to undermine a law just because they disagree with parts of it. It's as if Southern lawmakers had tried to block or repeal the Civil Rights Act after it became law in 1964.

They didn't because they had the maturity to accept the new status quo and move on. Today's Republicans should take a lesson from them.

As Frist said, healthcare reform is the law of the land. Deal with it. Work with it.

Grow up already.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com

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