Hand it to the Senate doctors for the best health care prescription

Melissa Jane Kronfeld Freelance Writer
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The health care summit that transpired at the Blair House Thursday was like most things that go on in Washington, D.C.: it ran late, everyone had party-line “talking points,” and not a trace of bipartisanship could be found.

Despite all this, the doctors really did have the right prescription for health care.

If there has ever been a person more relevant to a national debate, it is a physician-turned-politician at a government health care summit. After all, these are men whom swore an oath to protect and serve the people—whether they are performing surgery in a hospital or fighting against the cancerous growth of power in the Capitol.

President Barack Obama casually referred to them as “Tom and John,” but it was Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)—known as “The Senate Doctors” (also the name of their popular YouTube show)—that articulated the three core principles crucial to guiding the health care debate.

1. “[Don’t] get stuck in the idea of treating the symptom rather than treating the disease.”

Coburn is right.

Health care should by a system that prizes prevention. And as the Oklahoma senator noted, “We absolutely do not incentivize prevention.”

A rewards based system for getting and staying healthy as well as one that ensures that the nutritional needs of the American people are met, through such programs as food stamps and school lunches, are crucial to the preventive health care model.

Essentially, the senators stuck with the age-old adage that an apple a day really does keep the doctor away. Barrasso noted, most health care costs are expended on just five percent of the population—mainly, those people who do not take care of themselves because they “eat too much, exercise too little and smoke,” rather then reaching for that proverbial apple.

2. Put the patients (and the people) first.

Coburn declared his preference for a “more patient-centered” approach from the very start, in stark opposition to the Democrats “more government-centered” approach, a point he reiterated in his closing remarks. Because, as Barrasso pointed out, this bill will not affect “just people that don’t have insurance.”

The senator from Wyoming also shared with the president a revealing anecdote at the true heart of the matter of the health care discussion:

“The first week in medical school, we got our stethoscopes, and the professor of cardiology… said this is to listen,” Barrasso told the president. “This is to listen to your patients, listen to their heart, listen to their lungs. But it’s a constant reminder to listen to them, listen to what they are telling you. And it means to listen to the other people in the room… it’s a constant reminder to listen.”

The health care debate is bigger than just a choice between patient vs. government control. It’s about providing a service that the American people want. And the American people want health care, but they do not want this bill. As Mitch McConnell proclaimed: “The people have rendered a judgment of what we have attempted to do so far.”

3. “It’s all about the money, honey.”

“We don’t need to spend a penny more in health care in this country,” Coburn told the president. “What we need to do is spend it much more wisely and much more effectively.”

Both Coburn and Barrasso spoke about the most pressing issue in medicine today: it is simply too expensive. And both senators agree that putting the government in charge is not going to lower costs.

“If throwing money at it and creating new government programs could solve it, we wouldn’t be sitting here today because we’ve done all that,” Coburn told the president. “It hadn’t worked… Why does it cost so much, because the thing that keeps people from getting access to care in our country is cost.”

Barrasso agreed, “People are happy with the quality of care they get and the availability, but they sure don’t like the affordability because it’s not affordable.” What the focus should be on, Coburn told the president, is cost excesses, including reducing extortion in medical malpractice and attacking private insurance fraud in addition to prioritizing incentives for prevention.

“If we don’t reconnect the mechanism of payment with purchase,” Coburn told the president in his closing remarks, “we’re not going to get good value out of our health care system.”

The cost-benefit argument seemed lost on the president who then called on Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.)—a Congressman whose financial indiscretions leave much to be desired—to make the Democrats’ final comments. (Ironically, upon the conclusion of the summit, it was announced that Rangel, who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, had violated house rules when he knowingly accepted corporate-paid vacations).

Reconnecting cost and payment is what Barrasso was talking about when he brought up providing Americans with catastrophic health care. Knowing that they are totally covered, the senator noted, those with catastrophic care ask better questions and shop around. This “central conservative insight” was highlighted in a New York Times op-ed by former Atlantic editor Ross Douthat in 2009 when he wrote “We’ll never control spending so long as Americans are insulated from the true price of their medical care.”

But when pressed by the Obama if he would still want catastrophic health care coverage with an income of $40,000 a year, Barrasso’s attempt to respond was summarily quieted by our commander in chief, who quickly called upon Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) to quiet the storm.

Still, The Daily Caller’s Jon Ward, was intrigued by the exchange.

“This was actually probably one of the more revealing comments by the president,” Ward wrote. “And one of the few times over the last year he has really come out and addressed the basic conservative idea that health care should be moved toward a catastrophic care system, which was the argument laid out in The Atlantic magazine’s September cover story.”

But instead of listening to what Barrasso was saying, left wing blogs and even some larger media outfits ripped into the Senator, and it wasn’t long before a leftist tempest washed over the Internet.

Talking Points Memo stated Obama took Barrasso “to medical school” and Fire Dog Lake slammed Barrasso for not having catastrophic health care coverage himself

The UK’s Guardian said Barrasso’s response was like “a fish imitation (“glub glub glub”).” MedPage said the president bristled at Barrasso, while CBS called the president’s response to him incredulous and E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post applauded the president for challenging the junior senator. Meanwhile, the New York Times, whose reporters were also live blogging the event, didn’t even think is was worth mentioning the senator’s statement.

Maybe if the president had given Barrasso the opportunity to respond to his question (rather then just repeating his name, “John… John…,” as the senator tried to speak) we all could have learned a little bit more from the former chief of staff of Wyoming’s largest hospital.

But no one’s feelings seemed too hurt. Those of us watching the live stream on WhiteHouse.gov saw the two men exchange a few words, a shake and a smile once the summit had ended.

And Barrasso is an old hand when it comes to taking swipes from president. It was just last summer when Obama sarcastically called the 25-year practicing surgeon, “the George Clooney of junior senators from Wyoming” during his speech at the White House Correspondents dinner.

Leading up to health care summit, there was a lot of talk from the White House about listening to what both sides had to say. But Barrasso made an excellent point when he told the president, “I have great concerns that people around this table are not listening to the American people and are fearful of the consequences of this large bill, which is why only one in three people of America support what is being proposed here. And that’s why so many people, Mr. President, are saying it’s time to start over.”

Melissa Jane Kronfeld was a reporter with the New York Post from 2005-2009. A graduate of New York University and George Washington University, she lives in New York City, where she writes about politics and international relations.