The World from Berlin A Stillborn Health Care Reform?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised sweeping reforms to health care reform. Her so-called grand coalition has finally reached an agreement, but observers wonder whether the reform package -- and the coalition itself -- are viable.

A tired Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference early Thursday morning. After lengthy negotiations, her coalition government agreed on a health care reform package.

A tired Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference early Thursday morning. After lengthy negotiations, her coalition government agreed on a health care reform package.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, three visibly exhausted politicians emerged from the German chancellery. After seven gruelling hours of negotiations Chancellor Angela Merkel, Kurt Beck, chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber had finally agreed on a health care reform package.

The process of restructuring Germany's troubled and increasingly costly health care system started back in July with Merkel's announcement of a "breakthrough." Her coalition government had committed itself to negotiating the finer details of the comprehensive reform package, including the establishment of a central fund for health insurance contributions. The SPD and Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have diverging visions for a new health care system and the compromise deal hammered out this week is widely regarded as a test of the government's ability to agree on important reforms.

The Financial Times Deutschland applauds the grand coalition for proving that "it is capable of maneuvering itself out of a tight dead end." But the business daily is also criticial: "this elaborate maneuver has contributed almost nothing to the cause." The coalition government has postponed the important issues until after the next regional elections in 2008, the paper says, while this latest "breakthrough" merely provides "a politically practicable non-solution." The FTD does not take this as a good sign for the future viability of the coalition.

The Berliner Zeitung agrees that "this absurd scenario debunks the whole sanctimony of yesterday's pseudo-agreement." Berlin's left-wing daily traces much of the discord within the coalition back to Edmund Stoiber, leader of Bavaria's conservative CSU. Stoiber "has the potential to go down in the history books as the undertaker of the grand coalition," the paper writes, because of the reservations he expressed even after this week's intense negotiations. The reform so far is "a naked disaster" because the SPD and the CDU "are only concerned with positioning themselves for the next federal election." According to the Berliner Zeitung, the true winners are Edmund Stoiber, Roland Koch and Christian Wulff, three conservative state premiers whose current reelection maneuvers have become "an unmistakable indication of Merkel's failure."

A lone voice of optimism can be found in the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung. The paper lists four positive outcomes of yesterday's reform effort. First, "the welfare state is reclaiming" half a million German citizens who were hitherto uninsured. Second, a "complicated and incomprehensible" system of accounting is being replaced with a more intuitive one. Third, all of Germany's roughly 140 public insurance companies will be united under a single insurance association, thus "limiting the power of the functionaries" and encouraging a more competitive market. Fourth, private insurance companies are now required to hand over most of a customer's savings when he or she changes insurers, "so that the insured are no longer trapped once they decide on an insurance company." Despite these improvements, the Süddeutsche writes, the postponement of the most important reforms, along with Edmund Stoiber's reservations, means that "in the end, these efforts will not result in a centennial masterpiece, or in a great reform, but in a mini-reform at best."

Finally, the mass-circulation Bild Zeitung addresses a letter to the "dear night owls of the chancellery." In it, the paper denounces their "night-induced paleness and sleep-deprived red eyes," saying that the middle of the night is no time to discuss state affairs. Instead, the night "is a vacation from the day. … At night, one wears a T-shirt and holds a woman in one's arms." The Bild Zeitung doesn't "like it when decisions about Germany are made at night."


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