Mark your calendars, investors; Feb. 25 could change the scope of health care in the U.S. Alternately, it could just be a waste of half of a day in front of the TV.
Since Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority, making it harder to get health-care reform through the Senate, President Obama has decided to try an alternative route: a bipartisan compromise.
Unfortunately, inviting Republicans to the bargaining table, at a meeting which will be televised later this month, may end up being more political theater than actual lawmaking. As much as investors would like to see closure, Feb. 25 may not get us any closer to wrapping up the issue that's been weighing on health-care stocks for months.
Too far apart?
Republicans want to start anew by shelving the unmerged bills that were passed by the House and Senate. Democrats seem to be looking for just enough tweaking of the current bills to get enough Republicans on board to get it through the Senate.
Alternatively, Democrats would probably be just as happy portraying Republicans as obstructionists, with the hope that voters will replace enough Republicans with Democrats in November so that health-care reform can pass next year.
That pressure could result in some toned-down version being passed, which would make both sides look like winners, but might hurt investors -- and consumers -- more than the current bloated bills.
Half a fix may be worse than no fix at all
There are two major problems with the U.S. health care system today: It's very expensive, and there are many people who don't have insurance. The two are ultimately tied together, both financially -- I would imagine many of the 26.9% of Texans who don't have insurance would buy it if it was cheap enough -- and politically.
The solution is to get everyone into the risk pool, where the uninsured well people can help pay for the uninsured sick people. With universal health care off the table, that leaves politicians requiring everyone to get insurance through private insurers such as UnitedHealth Group
But the government would have to subsidize insurance for many poor people, which means extracting concessions from other areas of health care: drugmakers like Pfizer
With the entire system intertwined, I'm not sure it will solve anything or help anyone to pass a watered-down version of health-care reform. The worst-case scenario for investors is that politicians try to punish health-care companies with higher taxes, but don't give them extra patients through mandated health insurance.
More uncertainty ahead
Uncertainty can be profitable -- if you're on the correct side of the decision -- and there are health-care plays that should work well whether reform passes or not. But I'd just as soon get the debate over with and see health-care stocks return to trading on fundamentals. You know -- things like revenue, profits, and cash flows, rather than what politicians are currently saying.
Unfortunately, this debate seems far from over. While I hope something productive will come from the bipartisan meeting later this month, I'm not expecting much more than politics as usual.
What do you think will happen to health-care reform? Is a bipartisian compromise the best answer? Let us know in the comments box below.