Health Care: A Bolt of Civic Hope

In an anti-political time the politics of remedy is still possible. Two congressmen, one liberal, one conservative, both versed in the relevant complexities, agree on the bones of a plan to insure the 44 million Americans without health insurance

The story of the coming "grand bargain" on health care is one of Democrats accepting the existence of a private insurance industry and Republicans accepting the need to help make sure that everyone can buy a decent policy. It is a story of liberals agreeing that innovation shouldn't be regulated out of U.S. health care and conservatives agreeing that justice has to be regulated into it. It is a classic tale of mutual mistrust finally being trumped by mutual political advantage. I know this because after I had scoured Washington for months, talking with several dozen officials, health experts, and interest groups across the political spectrum in search of a workable way to get the parties together on this, an old-time single-payer liberal and a conservative Republican sat down with me and proved that the thing can be done.

The Politicians

THE moment Jim McCrery walked into Jim McDermott's office, near the Capitol, I felt relief. At least the meeting was going to happen. For two weeks we had been planning this session, yet every day I'd half expected one or both of them to call the whole thing off as unnecessary and strange. Why, after all, would a Republican and a Democrat, both of whom serve on the health subcommittee of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, want to sit down for a journalist in an election year for a session resembling a negotiation? Politicians don't generally volunteer for press encounters they can't control. And as I had learned while making the rounds of Washington's health-policy gurus, getting a liberal and a conservative to discuss a pragmatic way to work toward universal coverage can get complicated.

It was an easy decision to seek out a duo in the House rather than in the Senate, because "the people's chamber" is ground zero for the partisanship that any consensus would have to transcend. The first pairing I thought of was Bill Thomas and Pete Stark -- the chairman and the ranking member, respectively, of the Ways and Means health subcommittee. But Thomas sees Stark as a hopeless liberal relic, and Stark sees Thomas as a heartless market fundamentalist. Thomas made it clear that he would participate in such a discussion only if paired with a centrist Democrat, such as Ben Cardin, of Maryland. But as I told Thomas, there was nothing interesting in the likelihood that he and a centrist Democrat could reach a deal. That happens every day. The question was whether a big-government liberal and a market-loving conservative could get together. If they could, maybe there'd be a chance for progress.

And so I turned to the Democrat Jim McDermott, of Seattle, and the Republican Jim McCrery, of Shreveport, Louisiana. McDermott, age sixty-three, went to Congress in 1988 after sixteen years in the state legislature. A psychiatrist by training, he is the longtime leader of the single-payer advocates in Congress, who wish to adopt a Canadian-style approach, under which the government doles out cash to regional health authorities that cover everyone and private insurance essentially doesn't exist. Since the Republican sweep of 1994, however, McDermott has stopped pushing this system. He even co-sponsored a Republican bill backing modest health tax credits in 1997.

McCrery, age fifty-one, is the Republican to watch on health care, according to several prominent Republican policy analysts. Also a member of Congress since 1988, he has studied the issue intensively in recent years, and argues that smart politics and sound policy require Republicans to shed their traditional view that health is not "their" issue. McCrery is among those being named as possible successors to Bill Archer, the retiring chairman of Ways and Means, in the scramble expected if the Republicans hold the House this fall.

McDermott scores 85 percent "liberal," McCrery 83 percent "conservative," on rankings compiled by National Journal, a Washington-based politics and policy magazine. They voted opposite ways on ten of twelve important votes tracked by that magazine in the past Congress. Personally, too, as I couldn't help noticing while they kibbitzed in McDermott's office, they're a study in contrasts. McDermott is a big man with a hearty laugh, whose boisterous energy seems better suited to the stump than to the Freudian couch. McCrery is slender and soft-spoken. He had to be asked to speak up for my tape recorder.

Staffers for both men had been pressing me for days for a write-up of the plan I had said I would offer as a point of departure for our talk. In the end, however, I decided that putting anything in writing was too risky -- it would be combed by staff members for unacceptable terms and could easily become a pretext for cancellation. Now, while a photographer posed McDermott and McCrery in unnaturally close positions, the two men, who plainly like each other, cracked uneasy jokes about what they had gotten themselves into. Finally they sat down -- McDermott on my left, of course, and McCrery on my right -- on a standard-issue government couch, beneath a wall of photos that included Mahatma Gandhi and a younger, dark-haired McDermott with Ted Kennedy. McDermott, smiling, said he appreciated the gesture his colleague had made by agreeing to meet in the office of the minority party. The tension soon eased, and they took off their jackets; in the event, they put off meetings and skipped a vote to extend an hour of planned conversation to nearly two.

"What We're Gonna Give Everybody"

WE began. I sketched out an approach that my interviews with them, with their House and Senate colleagues, and with assorted analysts and interest groups had suggested could gather broad support. The basic idea would be to offer people a tax credit usable for the purchase of a health-insurance policy (and to pay the


A Conversation With Jim McDermott and Jim McCrery
The full transcript of Matthew Miller's conversation with the two congressmen.

amount of the credit directly to those too poor to owe income taxes). It would be generous enough to buy a decent "Chevrolet" from among competing private health plans. Individuals would have access to some form of insurance pool to ensure affordable group rates. It might be phased in to establish a system parallel to today's employer-based coverage -- offered first, perhaps, to those not covered by either a government plan (such as Medicaid) or a company. The idea would be to avoid giving employers an incentive to drop existing coverage in the near future. Over time, however, it could move the nation away from a system centered on coverage offered by employers to one in which individuals received subsidies and were responsible for -- and perhaps mandated to buy -- their own coverage in the private market.

Obviously, a hundred difficult details are glossed over in this sketch, I said, but something similar was outlined repeatedly by the diverse group I consulted. Could something like this be the beginning of a deal? What follows is a compressed account of the conversation.

McDermott spoke first. "In order to get us off dead center," he said, "we've got to try something in the middle here and see if it'll work. I'm so frustrated by having spent thirty years watching it get worse that I'm willing to try practically anything to get us moving."

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