Bill Steigerwald

Saying that America's semi-private, semi-public health care system needs a complete overhaul, President Obama last week challenged Congress to send him a health care reform bill he can sign by the end of the year. The president said that a new health care system would have to meet three strict criteria, however: it'd have to lower costs, allow patients to choose their own doctors and provide affordable, quality care to everyone.

To get an expert's reaction to the president's ambitious dream, on Wednesday, May 13, I called economist Regina Herzlinger of Harvard Business School. Herzlinger, dubbed the "Godmother" of consumer-driven health care by Money magazine, is widely regarded in Washington and elsewhere for her innovative research in health care and for writing books like her latest, "Who Killed Health Care?" (2007).

Q: President Obama said our health care system needs a complete overhaul because it is broken and because families, businesses and governments can no longer afford it. Is this an accurate assessment of our health care system - broken and unaffordable?

A: Yes and no. We have of course wonderful doctors and wonderful hospitals. For example, the transplant center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is world class. And Thomas Starzl, who started it, is a genius, a great man. Many people would not be alive today if it were not for him and for the hospital's courage in backing him.

And of course we have this great technology that the U.S. leads the world on, which is called "personalized medicine," which is essentially figuring out the linkage between mutated genes and genetic diseases, and it promises to actually cure these diseases rather than palliate them. I believe this is a technological innovation that is as profound as the Industrial Revolution, in terms of its impact on the welfare and productivity of human beings.

However, President Obama is absolutely right - the costs are unaffordable and they are unaffordable in the following ways: First of all, we pay 70 percent (more) than other developed countries as a percentage of GDP for health care.

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..