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COL Time for health care action

To be effective will require bipartisan compromise

There has been enough hand-wringing about the rising cost of health care, the millions of Americans who lack health insurance and the irrational inflation in prescription drug prices.

It's time to begin discussing what to do about the problem. That's just what David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News and World Report, has done in a recent column.

He calls the issue a complex and intractable problem that the nation has been unwilling to face for the last eight years. He gives Bill and Hillary Clinton credit for at least trying to suggest a solution in the early '90s, but said their proposals called for too much government control.

Gergen offers no specific solutions, but he suggests any successful approach will have to be a compromise between the Republicans' exclusively free-market plan and a government-run system favored by some liberals.

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He quotes a study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies which cites rapidly increasing health care costs and also states that "tens of thousands die from medical errors each year and many more are injured. Quality problems are widespread and disturbing racial and ethnic disparities in access to and use of services call into question our fundamental values of equality and justice for all ..."

He adds that 41 million Americans lack health insurance, up from 35 million when Clinton took office. In addition, the government cut doctors' reimbursements for Medicare by 5.4 percent last year and plans another cut of 4.4 percent in January. Some doctors are dropping Medicare patients and others have said they won't take new patients.

At the same time, Canada's nationalized health system also is experiencing financial problems and faces serious complaints about long waits for medical treatment.

Given the Republicans' recent electoral successes, there is even less chance than in the past of a nationalized system in the United States. However, that does not mean that nothing can be done.

Certainly the government could take action to control prescription drug prices, which are many times higher here than in Canada or in European countries. It could also use its bargaining power to negotiate lower costs for medical and hospital services paid by the government.

The problem will not solve itself and it will become even more acute as the Baby Boom generation ages and faces increasing medical and hospital costs.

It is time for the leaders of both parties to recognize that they have a responsibility to work toward a bipartisan compromise. We need to consider the interests of the drug companies, insurance companies, hospitals, doctors and other providers -- but the needs of consumers, long neglected, should come first.

We have first-class medical technology but still lack the social and political knowhow to make it accessible and affordable to most Americans.

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The issue:

Health care costs rise, but parties are split on how to respond.

Our comment:

Leaders of major parties must find middle way to get results.

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