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Kathleen Parker - 07/31/09
REFORMING REFORM THE UTAH WAY

In a way, it's too bad President Obama tapped Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to serve as ambassador to China.

The ambassador-designee promised a Senate panel Thursday that, if confirmed, he would press American values in China. If only the Obama administration would press Huntsman's health-care reform values here in the U.S.

As governor, Huntsman has overseen a blueprint for the overhaul of Utah's health-care system that could be a model for a more-rational approach to national reform. In one fell swoop, Obama effectively eliminated one of the most qualified Republicans to challenge his health care reform, as well as a leading contender to spearhead a Republican coup in 2012.

Nobody ever said the president "acted stupidly." Alas, Huntsman, whose talents include speaking Mandarin Chinese, was also perfectly suited to the China position.

Oh well, c'est la guerre.

In Huntsman's likely absence - and given that the national health-care plan as proposed has no chance of survival - perhaps we should take a look at what he will leave behind. Rather than dismantle Utah's health-care system, Huntsman homed in on the central problems and put mechanisms in place to fix them.

What a stunning idea. Revolutionary in its respect for rational human behavior, Huntsman's plan, scheduled to go into effect this fall, begs to be admired up close. (The Obama plan, by the way, wouldn't start up until 2013, in case you were trying to plan a gallbladder operation. Might want to check in at the Florence Nightingale Hospital in Istanbul.)

Many of the problems afflicting Utah are among the same that plague us nationally. But Utah, unlike Washington, has sought practical, consensus solutions for the real problems, rather than a sweeping remake that puts government in control.

One of the most crucial problems, locally and nationally, is that most of the uninsured earn low wages and often work in small firms. Thus, Utah has created an exchange focused on improving insurance options for them and leaves alone those with good insurance today. And the exchange facilitates consumer choice based on price transparency, not government regulation and control.

One reform, for example, creates portable coverage - insurance policies that workers can take with them when they leave or change jobs and that can be paid for with pre-tax dollars. Utah consumers also can pick the insurance program that best suits them, taking into consideration cost and level of benefits needed. To assist, the state launched a Web site where consumers can compare policies, pricing and financing, and sign up electronically -- all in one place.

Not surprisingly, Utah's plan resulted from months of research, consensus-building and meetings among legislators, health care providers, insurers, businesses and community members. It hasn't happened quickly, in other words - nor is the process over. A few problems have been resolved using the best free-market principles, while others will be tackled down the road.

That is to say, health care is complicated and reform takes time. Like Obama, Huntsman recognized the abysmal condition of his state's health care system and declared in 2005 that doing nothing was not an option. Though they share the same goal, the two leaders have taken significantly different approaches. Notably missing in Utah was the rush-rush-rush mentality adopted by the Obama administration.

If the plan is so good, why the hurry?

The House bill was delivered in mid-July and Obama wanted a vote before the August break. If it's so great, why not give everyone time to read it carefully and vet it publicly? The Senate's decision Thursday to postpone consideration of the bill until the fall met with qualified approval from Obama. Insisting that he wants to get the bill right, Obama also said he hopes postponement isn't a tactic to kill health care reform.

The reason for the rush is politics, of course, but that's no excuse when so much is at stake. That Republicans have been slow, and frankly negligent, in producing their own alternatives is also no excuse now to ignore good ideas.

Compared to what's being trotted around the Asylum On The Hill, Utah's bipartisan reform project sounds downright dreamy. Simple and geared toward the consumer, it was designed under the operating principle that Americans are capable of making their own decisions, whereas the Obama plan presumes that only government can solve the problem.

Government has a place, to be sure. But as Huntsman and his team have demonstrated, government's best role is in creating mechanisms for people to help themselves.

Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.