DON BRUNELL: Big ideas need some time to simmer

Big ideas are not microwavable snacks, instantly ready for American taxpayers to swallow.

Big ideas are not microwavable snacks, instantly ready for American taxpayers to swallow. They’re more like a pot of grandma’s homemade soup, tested over the years with just the right ingredients, added at the proper time and allowed to simmer to perfection.

So it is with federal health care reform. It is a work in progress.

There have been many attempts to pass sweeping reforms too quickly and they have all failed. Americans want meaningful change they can afford and reaching that delicate balance takes time and careful consideration.

Hopefully, after a major setback in the Massachusetts Senate race last week, President Barack Obama, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will now listen – and proceed more carefully. Rather than throw out our entire health care system, they need to embrace what is working and fix what is not.

Making sure health care is accessible and affordable to all citizens is a common goal we all share. It is neither Democrat nor Republican and people want solutions, not political fingerpointing.

They need to remember the old axiom that, for every finger pointed at someone who dares to disagree, there are three fingers pointing back at them.

Americans know that reforming health care won’t be cheap, simple or easy – and it is not without consequences. While Obama was right to turn up the heat on the issue, he and Congress need to carefully write, test and enact health care reforms we can afford, rather than handing out hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to get key Senate holdout votes like Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

Health care reform shouldn’t have an artificially imposed deadline so the president can make it the centerpiece of his state of the union address. Again, take the time to listen to the people who elected the president and Congress and get it right for them.

This isn’t the first time an American president has tackled a mammoth new undertaking.

When President Eisenhower took office in 1953, he envisioned a 47,000 mile highway system like Germany’s autobahns that could quickly move military equipment, soldiers and supplies across America. Like health care, the interstate system would be hugely expensive.

But Ike was patient and it took three years for Congress to pass the legislation and another 35 years before construction was finished. It ended in 1991 with the removal of the last stoplight on Interstate 90 in Wallace, Idaho.

Eisenhower also realized that all highways aren’t the same. For example, the highway crossing the Continental Divide just outside Butte, Mont., was engineered differently than the four-lane freeway across the flat farm lands between Moses Lake and Spokane.

The same is true of health care reform. Reforming existing coverage that employers provide to their workers and families is different than developing new coverage for the uninsured.

Congress could learn something from Washington state’s health reform efforts. Association health plans – plans offered through private organizations to dues-paying members – cover more than a half-million people in our state, more than 40 percent of whom were without coverage before their employer enrolled them. Thousands of small businesses in Washington are covered today under AWB’s own plan.

The key is to proceed incrementally, ensuring that something works before forging ahead. This is our health care we’re talking about and our grandchildren’s future we’re mortgaging. Saddling them with trillions in debt is not a legacy most Americans want to leave to future generations.

Like grandma’s homemade soup, Obama and Congress should turn up the heat gradually, allowing health reforms to develop slowly. Rather than using the credit card to charge for ingredients we cannot afford, we should buy only what is essential.

Congress and the president need to remember that, if they turn the flame up too high, health reform will be ruined yet again and Americans will get burned big time.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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