Obama's Health Care Reforms Debated by Wyckoff Class

The small Kirner-Johnson classroom was packed on Monday, May 3, for a debate regarding Obama’s healthcare reforms and how these policies might be bettered. Fourteen public policy majors, “armed only with a semester's worth of study of the economics, ethics and politics of health care,” engaged in the debate.

Associate Professor of Government Gary Wyckoff served as moderator of the event. He was also responsible for assembling a panel of “outside experts” who listened to the students’ proposals and then offered constructive critiques. The panelists included Jim Connolly ’74, president of Ellis Hospital in Schenectady; James Millar ’90, vice president for medical centers at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals; and Anthony Carello ’09, graduate student in law and public policy at Syracuse University.

The first team was comprised of students Coby Berman ’12, Timothy Boucher ’13, Scott Hefferman ’11, James Kruger ’12, Brendan Rafalski ’11, and Anthony Scarpino ’13. They proposed the Citizens Health Benefit Package (CHBP), which they would implement in lieu of Obama’s current healthcare plan. Some of their more radical ideas included expanding the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) as well as phasing out Medicare over a 14-year period and cutting out Medicaid completely.

They explained that the FEHBP could become a universal plan (mostly due to its cost efficiency and political feasibility), and that universal coverage was crucial to success. “Healthcare is not a privilege,” they said, “but a right.”

The team also stated that, by implementing the CHBP, there would be some initial costs to deal with but that there would be significant surplus in the long run. They would balance out the costs with some of Obama’s revenue sources (like the tanning tax and the Cadillac tax) as well as additional revenue sources (such as computerized medical records, a “fat” tax and increased taxes on cigarettes and alcohol).

The proposal was well-received by the panelists, who nevertheless had a few questions to ask the team. The definition of “right” (as opposed to “privilege”) was discussed at length, as well as how the team might deal with lobbying from the alcohol and tobacco companies.

The second team was comprised of students Megan Cairns ’12, Russ Doubleday ’11, Sarah Dreyer-Oren ’12, Donovan Flint ’11, Patrick Landers ’12, Anna Mikhailovich ’12, Sara Scheineson ’12, and Cooper Veysey ’12. They proposed PAQACA, which stood for “Providing Accountable Quality and Affordable Care for America.” They explained that the current system was “unaffordable, unreliable, and inequitable” and that Obama’s plan leaves 14 million Americans uninsured.

Some of the second team’s more radical ideas included subsidies designed to ensure affordability by capping payments for premiums and cost-sharing, a Medicare Payroll tax (extending the tax to include unearned income), a Primary Care Initiative, and tort reform. Like the first team, they would also impose “healthy living taxes”, which would affect cigarettes, alcohol, sweetened beverages and fatty foods. They would also institute electronic medical records, which would make more than $80 billion annually after the 10-year implementation period.

This proposal was also well-received by the panelists, who once again lobbed questions and challenges at the team. One particularly interesting discussion centered on whether or not there was a difference in reproaching the not-for-profit vs. profit insurance companies. 

In the spring of 1993, Professor Wyckoff held a similar debate that garnered national acclaim. Those involved earned telephone calls with then-President Bill Clinton’s task force, two appearances on the NBC Today Show to discuss their ideas, and a story on ABC News. An op-ed by then-ABC News medical correspondent George Strait P’94 titled “The Clinton (N.Y.) Health Plan” appeared in the May 23, 1993, New York Times.
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