The new/renewed conversation on health reform…

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” said Yogi Berra.

It’s a lesson that health reformers can take to heart after reading the May issue of The American Prospect, which has a special section on “the path to universal health care.” The articles reflect heated debates, some spanning decades, on the preferred type of health reform; the best strategies and messaging; whether to pursue reform at the state or federal level; and how prevention can be a cornerstone for reform. My sense is we need all of the above: multiple efforts on different tracks and different venues—to meet this challenge.

There’s agreement on a couple of things, including the absolute urgency for reform. Many people are uninsured, or concerned their coverage won’t be there for them when they need it. Lack of adequate health coverage has direct health and financial consequences. The uninsured—and underinsured—live sicker, die younger, and are one emergency away from financial ruin.

A couple of the articles debate the kind of health reform to pursue and point out issues with experiments like the Massachusetts reform and Medicare. I was privileged to contribute an article on some of the lessons learned from the debate in California, and about how we can be ready for the next round.

We have a new window of opportunity in 2009 to confront these issues, with a new President and new Congress. While California had a health reform effort stall recently, there is enough support and momentum that the window for comprehensive reform will re-open at the state level as well, with new legislative leaders and a Governor who still wants to pursue big reform in his last two years. In California we have an opportunity to pursue state reform, to both bolster and shape federal efforts, alongside our own direct pursuit of a national solution.

So will we be ready? Yes, if we learn lessons from our multiple-year experience in California, and help educate our friends around the nation. We Californians have much to tell: no other state has had such a robust discussion of health reforms in the past five years. Our legislature has advanced multiple reforms—expansions of job-based coverage, universal children’s coverage, a single-payer system, and a comprehensive “shared responsibility” approach—and all these ideas are still on the table.

To be ready, we need to lay the foundation this year. Proposed budget cuts would take us backwards in terms of access to health care. The budget—and current programs like Medi-Cal and Healthy Families–are the foundation on which health expansions will be built. While shoring up the budget with new revenues, we can also pass other policy reforms that are building blocks toward universal coverage.

Most of all, we need to plan and prepare for the next stage of the great health debate—as previewed in The American Prospect. We have a real opportunity in the next year or two and we need to take it.

(Cross-posted at Bob’s Blog, as a guest post on the new and renewed conversation on health reform, at the website of The California Endowment, an important funder for the Health Access Foundation and many key health programs and organizations in our state.)

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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