GOP cure

May 22, 2009 

Give U.S. Sen. Richard Burr credit for helping craft a leading Republican alternative to Democratic health care reform plans, and grant his sincerity, despite all the campaign loot he collects from the pharmaceutical industry. But is the plan he's proposing good medicine?

In one sense it's hard to tell. While many countries operate single-payer health plans -- which have their critics, but which win sustained backing from voters -- there are few if any comparable national models for the approach the Winston-Salem Republican advocates.

That approach, like that taken by John McCain last year, aims to make private health insurance more affordable (and thus widespread) by driving down health care costs through competition. Families and individuals would get a credit to buy insurance, paid for by ending the tax break employers currently receive for offering coverage. Health care consumers' newfound cost-consciousness would lead to smarter shopping for medical services; doctors and hospitals would respond by becoming more efficient.

What could be wrong with that? The plan speaks of universal coverage, but it's unclear whether it would reach that important goal. It shifts away from the decades-long system of employer-based health insurance, which, for all its flaws, is an in-place building block for expanded coverage. Key dollar figures associated with the plan may low-ball the actual costs -- particularly for covering people with pre-existing conditions.

And if "government insurance" is unpopular with conservatives, dealing with private health insurers frustrates just about everyone. Then too, some of the new insurance to be offered could prove inadequate.

Cost-cutting, however, has emerged as an important factor in health care reform. Elements of Burr's plan may have useful things to contribute to that effort. Congress, in shaping a better health care system, should shop around.

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