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Published December 10 2009

Forum editorial: Health bill debate far from over

The national debate over health care reform has gotten so polarized and dishonest that it is difficult for thoughtful Americans to separate substance from rhetoric. We say “thoughtful” Americans because the campaigns, whether for or against reform, are being waged on the extremes. Television ads in particular feature all-or-nothing remedies to the health care system’s woes. Letters to the editor reflect ideology over pragmatism, character assassination over disagreement.

Despite the vitriol of the debate, the U.S. Senate seems to be making progress toward a bill that will garner enough support to pass. The much-maligned public option has apparently been modified to become an expansion of Medicare, a “government-run” program most Americans like a lot. If that version satisfies ardent public option advocates, chances of the bill advancing improve.

But even with a full-blown public option off the table, the bill is not a sure thing. Nor should it be.

For example, tax provisions to fund the expensive reform could fall on the owners of small- and medium-sized businesses. That would be a monumental mistake. Those business owners drive the engine that creates jobs. With the nation’s unemployment at 10 percent (underemployment more like 17 percent), the last thing American business owners need is new taxes that will stifle job creation.

Secondly, an expansion of Medicare sounds good as an alternative to a public option. But if a broader Medicare system is linked to current inadequate reimbursement rates for hospitals and doctors, rural states will take a hit. Senators from rural states, including North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, will have a tough time voting for it. We suspect the senator will hold out for reimbursement rates that will benefit his constituents.

Finally, it’s almost an understatement to declare that the reform bill is a work in progress. A completed Senate bill is another step in the legislative meat grinder. The House bill includes provisions not in the Senate version. A House-Senate conference committee will take on the daunting task of harmonizing both bills into one, which then will be returned to each of the chambers for votes. There is a long way to go before a reform bill of any kind reaches the president’s desk.

Meanwhile, the well-funded, one-sided, patently dishonest, special interest-driven television ad campaigns will escalate. Viewers would be well-served to grab the remote and change the channel.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.