Looking Back at Health Reform’s Passage

It was a very bumpy road for the Obama administration to get the Affordable Care Act passed. And if it hadn’t been for a few key developments, it may never have happened at all, according to Dr. Bob Kocher, an internist who currently works for the Center for U.S. Health System Reform at McKinsey & Company. He was previously a member of President Obama’s National Economic Council and was involved in the effort to formulate and pass health care reform.

At the Society of Hospital Medicine’s annual meeting in Grapevine, Tex., this week, Dr. Kocher told thousands of hospitalists just how tough it was to get the Affordable Care Act passed, even with Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate. Health care advisors in the White House started out by trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past, he said. “The System,” the book recounting just how Hillary Clinton’s health care plan had derailed, was required reading. But despite their best intentions, they made many mistakes anyway, Dr. Kocher said.

Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.


The rest of the story is well known. The original health care reform bill passed through the House in November 2009. The Senate passed their version of the bill on Christmas Eve. A small group of Democratic lawmakers immediately set to work negotiating a new piece of legislation that would combine elements of the two plans and that would again have to be passed by both chambers. But with the election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown to the Senate in January 2010, the administration’s hopes of getting another bill passed through the Senate were dashed. The House Speaker agreed to try to pass the Senate’s original bill through the House instead. But even that wouldn’t have been enough to save health reform if not for a couple of events that happened outside of Congress, Dr. Kocher said.

First, Anthem Blue Cross of California proposed a massive 40% rate hike in the individual insurance market in the weeks before the pivotal second House vote. The proposal garnered headlines, and the Obama administration jumped on the chance to highlight it as a reason to reform the health insurance system. And then Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association came out in support of the bill, saying it did not allow for federal funding of abortions, and concerns about the issue could be allayed by an executive order from the President. This gave some anti-abortion Democrats a bit of breathing room to support the bill.

Looking back, Dr. Kocher said administration officials might not have made health reform a top domestic priority if they had known it would take so long to pass and cost them so much politically. He said he’s glad he didn’t know.

— Mary Ellen Schneider (on Twitter @MaryEllenNY)

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