Thursday, March 25, 2010

The start of Obama's health insurance reform: Room 400 of the Capitol Building in Springfield

I'm a bit inspired by Glenn Beck tonight to write up this post I've been percolating for a few weeks.

He's explaining on his TV show how both Barack Obama is a revolutionary straight out of the 60s implementing a decades-long plan to take over the country. That's why, in his view, President Obama spent so much time passing health care reform. Now the radical is ready for the next sucker punch to America in order to launch a socialist takeover.  That's his theory as to why President Barack Obama spent so much of his political capital to pass health insurance reform into law.

Here is mine.

This picture is Room 400 of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield (thanks to for the link). It's a beautiful Senate hearing room on the 4th floor. And it's where State Senator Barack Obama spent hours and hours in 2003 and 2004 holding hearings as the Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

You see, when the Democrats took control of the Illinois Senate in November 2002, Senator Barack Obama could have chaired almost any committee he wanted as a member with some seniority. He chose Health and Human Services. Because even then, one can surmise, he knew that our fundamentally broken health care system was one of the largest anchors pulling down the standard of living of regular folks. And that finding out how to improve that system to help regular people was one of the best uses of his political capital.

I remember watching him chair a committee hearing. The room was packed, but tired, because there was a lot of testimony and a lot of witnesses. State governments administer very large health insurance programs (Medicaid is a joint federal-state program and states have a lot of flexibility to design their own systems) and at the time, Illinois was in the midst of a significant expansion of Medicaid through a new AllKids program. It was rather groundbreaking stuff. There were a lot of experts and advocacy groups sharing perspectives on the consequences of the failures of our health care system and proposals to better regulate insurance companies or expand eligibility to Medicaid for lower-income people, week after week. The hearings were long and frequent. The subject matter was difficult and complicated. And Chairman Obama drank it all in. One question he asked a health care expert at the end of her testimony during a long hearing captured for me his approach to health care policy: "for my own edification, would you mind elaborating on...."  He was personally intellectually engaged in the very knotty problem of diagnosing the structural shortcomings of our health care system and prescribing policy solutions to ameliorate the worst shortcomings.

He spent the time to learn and understand how bad our health insurance really is in practice. He knows the details. He knows the nuances. He knows the consequences. He understands, as only a legislator engaged in the battle for policy improvements against a hostile industry can know, just how important better regulations and policies are to improve the lives of and prevent catastrophes to regular people. And he knew all this before he went to Washington.

So when President Obama faced conventional wisdom in Washington suggesting he scale back the year-long effort or settle for small steps and moving on to the next issue, he refused to quit. And I'm convinced all those hours in Room 400 of the Capitol Building chairing the Health and Human Services Committee came back to him while in the Oval Office these last 14 months to steel his resolve to see health insurance reform through. Because he knew -- he knew -- how people would continue to suffer needlessly without it.

That knowledge of how bad our health system is now and the understanding of why major (but commonsense) government regulations over the for-profit health insurance companies that drove President Obama is also the key for why more and more people over the last week are turning to support the new law. Because as people learn what the law does (and then learn that, before the Obama law, insurance companies could and did throw people out of coverage when they got sick and could and did refuse to cover anyone with a pre-existing condition and could and did take premiums for years and then not pay for medical bills after a lifetime cap), people come to the same conclusion that Chairman Barack Obama came to in Springfield: we need the government to regulate the insurance companies. A lot.

I'm proud that Chairman Barack Obama delivered on health insurance reform for the country. And Glenn Beck's theories of the source of Obama's determination to improve the system notwithstanding, I'm heartened that a big part of the basis of his drive to improve the system came from a full and complete diagnosis of the fundamental shortcomings of our health care system forged in Room 400.


Reed said...

That's an interesting story and a great perspective, Dan. Thanks for sharing.

I find myself in a lot more agreement with Biden's assessment more than Glenn Beck's. We now realize why efforts at reform failed in the past. This was a colossal problem with a lot of powerful resistance. The only way reform could have occurred was via a successful election to put a majority in place, and the unending resolve of strong leadership. Kudos to all of those who made this happen.

Will B said...

Thanks for reminding me of one of Obama's characteristics that I admire most: "He understands, as only a legislator engaged in the battle for policy improvements against a hostile industry can know..."

I don't know what it's like to be a legislator, let alone the rare legislator who actually wants to change things.

But I have been in a few battles lately, after a long period of living in the world of ideals. Your description of Room 400 reminded me that, before 2008, I wasn't as impressed with Obama's speaking talents as with his, well, doggedness.