The Massachusetts Opportunity

At this writing, voters in Massachusetts are going to the polls in a Senate election being watched throughout the country.  If Republican Scott Brown defeats Democrat Martha Coakley in the bluest of blue states, there’s no question there will be enormous ramifications felt up and down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Capitol Hill.

Already, some lawmakers and pundits are saying a Brown victory would be the death knell for health reform in this Congress.  Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) said in an interview on MSNBC, “I think you can make a pretty good argument that healthcare might be dead.”  In his New York Times column, David Brooks wrote today that congressional Democrats wouldn’t dare pass the current health reform legislation in the aftermath of a Massachusetts defeat.  He wrote, “It would be the act of a political party so arrogant, elitist and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern.”

Personally, I don’t want to see the Massachusetts results end any chance of improving our healthcare system during this session of Congress.  Rather, I hope the congressional leadership sees this as an opportunity to improve the legislation and recast it in a way that can gain sustainable political and public approval.

No one can realistically make the case that the Massachusetts race is an anomaly or is not a referendum on the current health reform efforts.  Brown has made it clear that he would be the 41st vote in the Senate to sustain any Republican filibusters on the measure, and the Massachusetts polls mirror a litany of national surveys showing consistent voter disapproval with the direction of health reform.

The message is increasingly clear – not to abandon the effort, but to fix it.  Make health reform less ideological, less political and more practical.  Enact meaningful insurance reforms and create subsidies to help low-income Americans afford private coverage.  Improve outreach and remove sign-up obstacles to help those eligible for public programs.  Develop real delivery and payment reforms to ensure that healthcare dollars are paying for value, not volume of services.  Implement necessary changes to our medical liability system.   Launch initiatives to improve wellness and prevention.

Whether Scott Brown wins, or even if Martha Coakley wins by a thin margin, it would be foolhardy for lawmakers to ignore the messages coming from the Massachusetts voters.  By the same token, it would be a waste to squander the opportunity that still exists to get health reform done – the right way.