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Op-Ed: Five common-sense reforms to get America working again

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Opinion,Op-Eds

It's harder than ever for average citizens to achieve the American dream. Yet our well-intentioned support is also making it easier for people to do nothing with their lives.

Here are five reforms to address that paradox.

1. Reform higher education funding: Guaranteed student loans, Pell Grants, Hope Scholarships, and education tax preferences, have led to tuition inflation, rather than affordability.

Schools that benefit from government aid should be required to limit their cost increases to the inflation rate. Had we done this sooner, we wouldn't have the higher education affordability and student loan crisis that we have today.

Institutions that want to continue to raise their costs unfettered, can do so -- just without our money. Holding colleges and universities accountable for affordability should go hand in hand with the dollars we spend supporting their industry.

2. Address the income-related educational achievement gap by introducing mandatory summer learning programs for lower-income elementary school children.

Almost two-thirds of the achievement gap between higher-income and lower-income K-12 students occurs because of the accumulated learning losses every summer.

Higher-income students typically get more enriching opportunities, read more, and build more constructive values and habits. Mandatory summer learning would boost student achievement, reduce teacher burnout and decrease classroom disruptions.

3. Provide differentiated learning paths for high school students.

Students with an aptitude and passion for something other than academic learning should be moved into learning environments that build on their strengths. We do far greater damage to both academic and non-academically oriented students by forcing them to learn together.

4. If we're searching for money to invest in individuals, let's start by looking at health care. The U.S. government is the world's largest consumer of health care, spending more than $730 billion annually.

Setting aside arguments about the wisdom of government-sponsored health care, if our government is going to pay for health care, it should be a prudent consumer. Based on health outcomes, we don't come close to that standard.

There's an old saying in health care, "When you hear hoof beats, think horses -- not zebras." But our doctors still test for zebras. This activity-based reimbursement system leads to unnecessary, costly and harmful care.

While shifting to evidence-based medicine and outcome-based incentives might not be practical in the next five years, there are some simple changes that can save billions of dollars.

For starters, allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. Lifting this self-imposed legal constraint would conservatively save more than $6 billion annually.

We'd save billions more by capping the reimbursement rates for hospital-provided services at the amount doctors receive for performing the same service in their own offices.

Finally, we should replace our system of medical malpractice with a victim's fund similar to workman's compensation. Eliminating the need for doctors to practice defensive medicine is a sensible step to reduce overtreatment.

5. Evaluate the federal government's 100-plus benefit programs using two key questions: Are they promoting upward mobility -- or complacency? And are they unintentionally exacerbating the problem they are trying to solve?

Programs left standing should have strings attached, requiring constructive behavior for continued participation. For example, require federal unemployment insurance beneficiaries to actively look for work or perform community service.

Accountability is the common thread here. And it will work. These practical reforms of our health care and benefits programs would more than pay for the education reforms that would give us schools -- and learners -- we can be proud of.

It's time to reform our well-intentioned social programs using common sense, so that we can move us from a culture of entitlement and stagnation to one of opportunity and achievement.

Greg Orman is a co-founder of the Common Sense Coalition, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to political problem-solving.

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