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Health Care Reform and the Next President

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Chris Lehane, Democratic strategist, and Republican Jim Brulte, former California legislator, sat side by side on stage at the California Endowment last week, exchanging light-hearted jabs and witty banter. The two seemed cordial enough during the event for which they were both panelists, entitled, "The Change We Need: Can Either Presidential Candidate Reform Health Care?"

In fact, the conversation was so jovial in tone that as the discussion got underway, it was almost easy to miss Brulte’s throwaway disclaimer as he answered one of the first questions: “Assuming for the sake of the conversation that you can put the financial crisis away…”

Moderated by Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for TIME magazine, the speakers both assumed an Obama presidency from the beginning. As such, there wasn’t much comparison between the McCain platform on health care reform and the Obama platform, and instead focused on difficulties that the next president will likely face as he attempts to move ahead with reform.

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Public opinion, according to Brulte, will be a major factor in decision-making. “More Americans believe [health care] is a right,” he said. “The question isn’t will we provide it, but how will we provide it?” Both panelists agreed that because of pressure from the public, the next president would be wise to push for reform within his first 200 days in office, even if only for show. Obama’s “base expects it,” said Brulte, “and he’ll have to garner [bipartisan] support.”

And while people who currently have health care might be afraid of what will happen in the event of reform, said Lehane, history will be the judge of our actions. “In 50 years,” he said, “people will say, why did it take so long?”

Towards the end of the event, though, the discussion came back around to the topic that Brulte had so casually brought up earlier: the financial crisis. “Obviously,” Lehane said, “we’re having a hypothetical discussion about what the world’s going to look like. It’s going to be very different given the economic situation.”

Given that comment, and the comment from Brulte at the beginning of the event, it was difficult to glean how reform might be possible in our current reality. But clearly, neither funding nor priority will be given to our choking, sputtering and slowly dying health care system (excuse me - it only seems to be choking, sputtering and dying if you, the person trying to receive health care, are also choking, sputtering and dying. Otherwise it’s in robust health).

At the end of the question and answer section, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman took the microphone. Her name was Sandy, and she was from Claremont, CA. “So many things have gone through my mind through this whole conversation,” she said. “My anger level has risen and subsided…it’s the voting public’s anger that has arisen in me.” Remaining calm, she continued: “We came to hear, can either president reform health care, and what I heard is, no.”

True to political form, Lehane and Brulte began to backtrack to reassure the congregated mass that there was no need to panic. Maybe they had unwittingly revealed that not much could be done, when in fact they should have been reassuring the general public that everything was fine. Regardless, the soothing balm that they tried to apply in the last five minutes didn’t cover up the fact that they leaked the breaking news: health care is going to take a backseat to the economy for the next president, who is essentially going to be bankrupt, and so while we all might be ready for reform, we shouldn’t expect it any time soon.

The entire conversation can be seen on the California Endowment’s website.

Photo by freddthompson via Flickr