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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nation can learn from Isle health law

By Jerry Burris

It's instructive that Gov. Linda Lingle is not among the first group of governors to file suit this week against the historic health care "reform" law that President Obama managed to squeeze through Congress.

The governor has been among those who question the law and its impact not just on families and individuals, but also on state governments who might inherit new "unfunded mandates" under the federal law.

So some kind of legal objection is still possible. If she chooses to fight it, she will face the tide of history in the Islands, if not nationally.

That's because in many respects, Hawai'i is ahead of the national program. Hawai'i's prepaid health care law, passed in the early 1970s, was a national trailblazer. Simply put, the law says that if you work full time, your employer must offer you insurance.

Now, there are plenty of pukas in the law. Give a person fewer than 20 hours of work, for instance, and the law does not apply. Still, it is groundbreaking stuff and in some ways more sweeping than the "Obamacare" bill.

As has happened in the past, Hawai'i's Congressional delegation made sure that this new federal legislation would not pre-empt Hawai'i's law. So far, so good. But the folks who wrote the original law envisioned the day when a comprehensive national health insurance law would pass, so they put in a clause that said the local law would go away once the national program was in place.

But in some ways, Hawai'i's law is still ahead of the curve. It captures more people and it offers more benefits. That conflict has to be resolved and it should be, in Hawai'i's favor.

As the nation struggles to come to grips with this new law (and believe it, there will be struggles), it would be instructive to look at the Hawai'i experience. For instance, did Hawai'i's plan come to look more like a "Cadillac" and less like a bare-bones "Chevy" over the years? That is, once the entitlement is in place, will it be decorated with so many "Christmas tree" ornaments or benefits that employers will spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to find a way around its mandates?

This is what is ahead for the Obama plan. Hawai'i, for now, is exempted from those provisions that fall short of what is offered in our state. But the fundamental laws of politics have not been lifted. The objections raised then and now about Hawai'i's pioneering law will be heard again as the new federal law lumbers into place.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, policymakers should look at Hawai'i, understand why it fought so vigorously for its exemption, and understand what worked and what didn't.