A Health Reform Renaissance, All Sides Claim

The administration and health care industry leaders are using one common word to talk about today's meeting at the White House: "unprecedented."

In his remarks at the White House, Obama called the meeting--and the pledge by industry leaders to save $2 trillion over the next decade--a turning point in the history of health care reform, away from a time (the Clinton administration) when industry lobbying efforts defeated it.

"And that's what makes today's meeting so remarkable--because it's a meeting that might not have been held just a few years ago," Obama said. "...[T]hese groups are voluntarily coming together to make an unprecedented commitment."

""This is a historic day, a watershed event in the long and elusive quest for health care reform," he said.

In the letter they delivered to the president, industry leaders, too, called the initiative unprecedented: "To achieve all of these goals, we have joined together in an unprecedented effort, as private sector stakeholders--physicians, hospitals, other health care workers, payors, suppliers, manufacturers, and organized labor--to offer concrete initiatives that will transform the health care system," they wrote.

And here's Sebelius, speaking on a conference call with reporters this afternoon:

What was truly remarkable is that a lot of the groups represented actually were major opponents to moving legislation in the early nineties. they were very much a part of the coalition who helped stop health reform, and they are very much engagned and at the table...

Stakeholders and union groups and corporate execs and providers who were there not only made a commitment to do that, but also a commitment to report back to the president on June first with the steps moving in this direction. So they're not going to wait for legislation to be passed, but feel that they can begin down this path today...

Everyone benefits from the undeniable appeal of this image: the health care industry looks concerned, selfless, and ready to work in the country's best interest, turning a page on the image they've accrued as "industry lobbyists" have been vilified by politicians over the years. The administration looks like it's shepherded in a new era of cooperation, like the charm and coalition-building skills President Obama championed during the campaign are exactly what the nation needs to tackle this major domestic initiative.

Of course, the June 1 date is perhaps an even more significant part of what happened today. The letter to Obama embraces his goals and pledges to cut costs; it does not say exactly how that will be done. June 1 is when they have promised to come back with a more specific plan.

(The letter does offer guidelines, such as "Reducing over-use and under-use of health care by aligning quality and efficiency incentives among providers across the continuum of care so that physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers are encouraged and enabled to work together towards the highest standards of quality and efficiency..."--but that's about as specific as it gets.)

So why did Obama and Sebelius make such a big deal out of today's meeting? I'm not doubting that they're genuinely excited about the level of partnership being offered by industry players--or even that it is legitimately unprecedented--but Obama and Sebelius stand to gain something else from today's high-profile event: it will be easier to hold this industry coalition to its pledge.

If the various factions cannot agree on a palatable plan and the watershed moment does not come through, the nation has borne witness to the promise.

Reforming health care is a difficult business, and we can only assume it will become more difficult as it gets deeper into the nitty gritty of policy. At least both sides are starting at the pinnacle of comity before the potential unpleasantness of closer details set in.