Instead of Obamacare, still so contentious and with all the pieces not yet in place, we could have had Bowencare, with the key piece put in place on July 1, 1988, by Ronald Reagan.
It would be named for Dr. Otis R. Bowen, about whom there were many accolades, all deserved, as the former governor's death was mourned last week.
Amidst the praise there wasn't much mention of what "Doc" Bowen considered one of his proudest achievements. That's because the achievement was repealed by Congress.
After two terms as governor, Bowen served in President Reagan's Cabinet as secretary of health and human services. In that role, he led early efforts to respond to the growing AIDS crisis. "Doc" also persuaded Reagan to support a health care reform bill, providing through Medicare protection against runaway hospital and prescription-drug costs in catastrophic illness.
In endorsing the plan, Reagan called on Congress "to help give Americans that last full measure of security, to provide a health insurance plan that fights the fear of catastrophic illness." Reagan lamented that "many of our senior citizens have been faced with making an intolerable choice, a choice between bankruptcy and death."
Since it would have been ludicrous to portray Reagan and "Doc" as wild-eyed advocates of socialized medicine, the plan was passed with large bipartisan majorities and signed into law by Reagan on that first day of July in 1988.
Bowen was able to fight off efforts by some liberal Democrats to add all kinds of expensive extras and efforts by some conservative Republicans to kill anything involving Medicare. The plan would pay for itself, adding not a cent to the national debt.
It provided for Medicare recipients to have full hospital coverage, with no limit on days covered, and protection against rising doctor bills and drug costs during a lengthy illness.
As the health care debate raged in the summer of 2009, Bowen, long retired back in Bremen, reminisced about that landmark legislation.
"We were years ahead of our time," Bowen said. "If it hadn't been repealed, it would have taken care of a lot of problems we are facing now."
Repealed it was.
Insurance interests and other special interests sought repeal in 1989. Reagan and Bowen were both gone from Washington, and nobody in the new Bush administration was willing to stand up for the health care coverage.
Opponents distorted cost statistics and organized demonstrations that were portrayed to the gullible news media as "grass roots" uprisings. They told folks who could benefit the most that they were being swindled. Sound familiar?
It wasn't something for nothing. Neither Reagan nor Bowen wanted that.
Additional benefits were to be paid for by the Medicare eligible in premiums deducted from Social Security checks -- $4 a month in 1989, climbing to $10.20 in 1993. The 40 percent of those eligible for Medicare who were subject to federal income tax would pay additional sliding-scale premiums based on wealth.
Insurance lobbyists cited the highest likely premium for the wealthiest to suggest that every senior citizens would pay that much.
Opposition also came on the liberal side from a group headed by James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called for both more coverage and less cost. That side also invented statistics.
Special interests rounded up some senior citizens, gave them signs and sent them to ambush Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, then the powerful House Ways and Means Committee chairman. News film showed Rostenkowski fleeing a "grass roots" gathering of senior citizens outraged about the Bowen plan.
Members of Congress, courageous back then, too, repealed the plan in the fall of 1989.
"If it hadn't been repealed, progress could have been very fruitful," Bowen said as he looked back in 2009 at his proud achievement and its repeal.
Could premium costs have been adjusted? Certainly. Could other complaints have been dealt with through amendment? Of course. Could the plan have provided the foundation for a workable and affordable health care act? Maybe, if Congress had built on that foundation, continuing the bipartisanship forged by Reagan and Bowen instead of letting health costs worsen and divisiveness grow.
We might today have had Bowencare -- already in place -- and not still be arguing over Obamacare.
Jack Colwell is a columnist for The Tribune. Write to him in care of The Tribune or by e-mail at email@example.com.