I had a piece on health care over on the online magazine Public Discourse yesterday (ably edited by Ryan Anderson, a sometime New Atlantis contributor). An excerpt from what I wrote:

All of this political fighting can be disconcerting to average citizens. Why, on an issue that is plainly so important, can’t our nation’s elected leaders check their politics at the door and work out an agreement that elicits broad-based support instead of war-room like campaigns to prevail over their opponents?

The answer is that the disagreement over what must be done to improve American health-care is profound and largely irreconcilable. This isn’t your usual, run-of-the-mill political fight. The two sides hold diametrically opposed views that simply do not easily allow for compromise. Moreover, the outcome of the battle will be highly consequential, not just for our system of financing and delivering health-care, but also for our economy and democratic processes. In short, the stakes are very, very high, and both sides know it.

Many people suppose that the heart of the disagreement is over whether or not to expand coverage to more people. It is, of course, a primary objective of the Democratic sponsors of the current initiative to ensure that every American, or nearly so, is enrolled in some kind of health insurance plan on a continuous basis.

But Republicans are not opposed to expanding coverage to the uninsured. In 2008, presidential candidate John McCain proposed a plan which would have provided to every American household a tax credit which could only be used to purchase a health insurance policy. It was, in a very real sense, a “universal coverage” plan in that it sought to ensure that every American would have the financial wherewithal, provided by the federal government, to acquire some level of health insurance protection. The issue, then, is not over expanding coverage to all.

No, the real sticking point between the two sides is over how to allocate resources in the health-care sector. Both sides agree that the status quo is unsustainable, largely because costs are rising much more rapidly than wages or governmental revenues. The crucial question is what to do about the problem. Put differently, the question health-care reform advocates must answer is this: what process will be put in place to bring about continual improvement in the productivity and quality of patient care? That might strike some as more of a technical question than one of fundamental importance. But, in reality, it’s just another way of saying that resources are scarce and must be allocated in some fashion. The only way to slow rising costs without lowering the quality of care provided is to improve the efficiency of the interactions between doctors and hospitals and those they care for. The question before policymakers is what reforms are most likely to lead to better care at less cost.

The entire article can be found here.