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Op-Ed Columnist

New Rules

Washington, DC

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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An interesting thought occurred to me today—what if academics sat down with ordinary people like you and me and ironed out some real solutions to our health insurance crisis?

With the election season over, maybe you’ve forgotten about health insurance, but I certainly haven’t. It would be easy to forget that the problem even exists, when our headlines are constantly splashed with the violence in Brazil, the authoritarian crackdown in Cape Verde and the still-unstable democratic transition in Saudi Arabia. But the health insurance problem is growing, and politicians are more divided than ever. Republicans seem to think that health insurance can just be ignored. Democratic politicians like Dianne Feinstein, on the other hand, seem to think that shrill rhetoric will substitute for a compromise.

But the Democratic party of Dianne Feinstein is not the Democratic party of Bill Clinton. Clinton wouldn’t refuse to budge, he'd compromise because he'd understand that the fate of the country, and his own political career, depended on a lasting solution to the problem of health insurance.

It's good to see the talks between the president and congress getting off to a solid start, but we know there will be plenty of partisan fireworks before any deal is cut. If I had fifteen minutes to pitch my idea to politicians, I'd tell them two things about health insurance. First, there's no way around the issue unless we're prepared to spend less: and not just spend less, but spend smarter by investing in the kind of human capital that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax cuts as well, but as they say, "Mo' money mo' problems."

Second, I'd tell them to look at Sweden, which all but solved its health insurance crisis over the past decade. When I visited Sweden in 2004, Kiki, the cabbie who drove me from the airport, couldn't stop telling me about how he had to take a second job because of the high cost of health insurance. I caught up with Kiki in Stockholm last year. Thanks to Sweden's reformed approach toward health insurance, Kiki has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford winter coats for his kids.

That's all it takes. Don't expect to see any solutions as long as industry captains insist on playing a high-stakes game of blackjack with one another. America has to become a first world country again.