Bill Clinton Talks Health Care Lessons with Senate Dems

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Former President Bill Clinton was the guest at the Senate Democrats’ weekly policy lunch. The subject: health care. Taking responsibility for the collapse of his attempt to pass health care reform in 1994, Clinton urged the caucus not to waste this opportunity. “I do think it’s good politics to pass this and pass it as soon as you can but more importantly it is the right thing for America,” he said, emerging from the meeting. “The worst thing to do is nothing.”

Clinton’s message was three-fold, actually. Besides extolling the political risks of doing nothing, the former president spent much of the nearly 90-minute lunch talking about the economic and health care risks of inaction. “This is a big economic problem. Before the economic collapse in September 2008, the median income in America after inflation was $2,000 lower than it was the day I left office, which was practically in the dark ages, right, over eight years ago,” Clinton said, chuckling at his own joke. “And why? First, we didn’t have enough job growth and second health care premiums doubled and so money that would’ve gone into worker’s pay raises went into health care instead.”

Clinton also gave the global picture of how dysfunctional the U.S. system is. “We are spending 16.5% of our income on health care,” he said. “The next most expensive country is Switzerland at 11.5%, the next most expensive after that is Canada at 10.5%. All of our other competitors are between nine and 10% of income which means that every year we spot – it’s like we write a check to all of our economic competitors for $800 billion or $900 billion a year. And they cover everybody, we only cover 84%. We don’t get better outcomes, we get worse outcomes.”

On reforming the system, the president extolled the immediate benefits reform would reap. “And under all versions of this bill, keep in mind, the average person who doesn’t have insurance would be able to afford it, the people who do have insurance won’t lose it and people who do have insurance will get to keep their kids on their policy until they’re 26,” he said. “It does more for mammograms, for prostate cancer, for all these things it strengthens the fabrics of existing health insurance policies.”

He also predicted that the bill would end up costing less than the Congressional Budget Office estimates. “This is not a criticism of CBO — nobody wants to play funny numbers,” Clinton laughed. “I’m just saying that we’ve seen this before, when we passed the big Medicare cost containment program when I was president, we saved more money more quickly than we thought. When Congress did it in the 80’s and President Reagan signed it, we saved more money more quickly than we thought. And even the Medicare drug program saved more money that they thought because they had a trigger for the public bidding power if there’s no competition.” Not that Clinton was endorsing the trigger, or any other provision in the bill: he was careful to stick to broad, sweeping advice rather than weighing in on the details.

The president referenced his own failure in the early 1990’s, according to Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. “From the point of view that it was an opportunity and he takes responsibility for not getting it done but he also pointed out that this is our opportunity now and pointed out the political reality: not getting it done is not an option,” Cardin said. Why did he visit now? “Well, I think the House just passed the bill and now in the Senate every vote is crucial,” Cardin continued. “I don’t know if we have a majority or not for a public option, I think it’s going to be kind of close.”

To that end, Clinton encouraged the party to unify before the bill, saying he’d support any bill they produce. “I told them I thought that in terms of policy there is no perfect solution because it’s a big, open, organic system that will have to be changed repeatedly over the next four or five years but it’s important to make a beginning.,” he said. “And so I think that whatever their differences are, I just urged them to resolved their differences and pass a bill. And I also believe, you know, people hire us to come work in places like this to solve problems and to stand up and do it.”

For anyone interested the audio is here. At the end, Clinton’s cell phone began ringing a sexy jazz tune. With an impish grim he waggled the phone before us, “It’s my Secretary of State calling.” Kudos to whomever can identify the song.