Healthcare: Hot again in '07

December 15, 2006

Perspective

As an issue, healthcare may have had little to do with the Democrats' congressional sweep in November, but that doesn't mean it won't be hot again once they take over next month. Already, a number of newly enfranchised Dems have made known that healthcare is one of their priorities.

To find out what's in store, we spoke to Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health and a keen observer of the political scene. Here's what he had to say on a range of issues crucial to both physicians and their patients:

Provider pay and patient access. The Democrats' concern that low-income people and seniors have unfettered access to physicians, says Blendon, will make them far more sympathetic to the problems that doctors face with the Medicare program than GOP lawmakers have been. That said, if it comes down to a contest between physicians and beneficiary groups over scarce resources, Democrats are likely to cut provider payments before they prune benefits.

Medical liability reform. The new Congress, says Blendon, won't be interested in this issue-and if it continues to be a top one for physicians, they'll have to reorder their priorities or risk disappointment.

Expanding SCHIP. A bold initiative to provide for the uninsured is "very unlikely in the next two years," says Blendon, but, at the least, Democrats can add additional enrollees to the State Children's Health Insurance Program when it's up for reauthorization in 2007. "The move won't be controversial or budget busting, but it will show that Democrats are committed to making some progress in the area of the uninsured."

Stem-cell research. Actor Michael J. Fox, whose battle with Parkinson's disease has unfolded publicly, pushed the issue of increased funding for stem-cell research front and center this November, especially in Missouri, where his endorsement helped Democrat Claire McCaskill edge out GOP incumbent Sen. Jim Talent. Blendon thinks that a bill broadening the scope of federal research funding beyond that set by the president is "highly likely." Will the president veto such a bill? That's uncertain, he says, since "both Democrats and moderate Republicans have picked up the issue."

Whatever Democrats end up doing these next two years, they have the chance to reinvigorate healthcare as a key political issue. Even if their healthcare ideas don't turn into policy, Blendon says, Democrats "can build momentum for broader issues and give their candidates something to stand on when they run in 2008."