Health care, climate change, and political reality collided this week, when experts discussing national single-payer health insurance clashed over the question of whether Democrats should make it their top priority if the party manages to retake both the White House and Congress this year.
John McDonough, a professor of the practice of public health who played a role in the design and passage of the Affordable Care Act, shook his head, arguing that recent history suggests health-care overhaul debates tend to crowd out all other issues and to exact a high political price.
“Health care is vitally important, but so is climate change, so is voting rights, so is gun control,” he said. “When health reform is on the agenda, it sucks up all the political oxygen in the room, and there’s very little room or space for anything.”
Adam Gaffney, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and president of Physicians for a National Health Program, disagreed, citing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society as examples of packages of progressive initiatives that passed despite multiple controversial parts.
“If you look at American history, many times many important reforms can be sought and achieved at the same time and that’s what we’re hoping for,” Gaffney said.
The exchange came during The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The webcast, “The Future of National Health Insurance: Debates During a U.S. Presidential Election Year,” also featured Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Chan School; Sara Collins, vice president of health care coverage and access for The Commonwealth Fund; and Phil Ellis, president of Ellis Health Policy Inc. and former analyst, adviser, and deputy assistant director at the Congressional Budget Office.