The current debate's lack of coherent content has been quite startling, and indeed dismaying insofar as one naively hoped for better.
I generally support what the Obama Administration is trying to do (though sometimes what that is, isn't entirely clear). In 1993, I was unsympathetic to the Clinton plan, but since then my view of how well the U.S. healthcare market functions has darkened. More on that in a moment. Unfortunately, I don't think the Administration has conveyed any clear sense of what it is trying to do, or why.
Concerning the other side in the debate, perhaps the less said, the better. I really can't say anything temperate at this point.
What is the set of problems to which the Administration's healthcare reform proposals might, with luck, be an at least partial solution? Brad DeLong once put the point quite crisply (in his moderate rather than shrill persona). To liberal economists, the big problem is adverse selection. To conservative economists, the big problem is moral hazard. And I myself would say they're both right, plus there also are externalities.
On adverse selection: Anyone who is facing uncertain healthcare expenses ought to want insurance, smoothing out the actual cost towards the expected cost. Our healthcare market does not work well to solve this problem, and that's a big reason for the millions of uninsured. The tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance contributes to this, by making risk pooling much harder for the people left over after these generally healthier groups have been cherry-picked out of the pool (so to speak).
Adverse selection, making fairly priced insurance unavailable, is inherently a big problem in healthcare if the government doesn't somehow mandate pooling, given that people often will know more about their expected future health than insurance company doctors will be able to learn. But the system created by tax benefits certainly has made things worse.
Myopic or irrational failure to insure (until it is too late) when one should have also is a problem. Likewise, the prospect of free care in the ER if one has a crisis may create an individually rational reason for under-insurance, but involving a fiscal externality. When you count as well the adverse effect on risk-pooling of people's staying out of the insurance market (contributing to adverse selection), there's a good case for mandating health insurance coverage, just as Social Security effectively mandates retirement savings.
There is an argument on the other side - why give me (or make me buy) something that costs $X if I value it at less than $X - but while that's often a good argument I personally would reject it on balance here. Note, however, that this argument applies equally to making me buy something for $X and giving it to me for free (since in that case we could simply have given me the $X instead). And the question of whether I pay the $X or get it for free is simply an input to the overall issue of post-tax and transfer wealth distribution in the society (which is not to diminish its importance, but just to put it in the proper larger context).
And finally, mixed in with adverse selection (though conceptually distinct) is that we may favor redistribution from those facing low expected healthcare costs to those facing high expected costs, in particular to the extent that brute luck rather than choice underlies the difference. Thus, mandatory insurance for which everyone was charged the same amount might be defended as combining a solution to adverse selection with a deliberative redistributive policy. By the way, lest this sound a bit lefty, it is distributionally equivalent to what the George H.W. Bush Administration would have proposed it if Bush I had won the 1992 election, via risk-adjusted subsidies for the purchase of private health insurance.
OK, on to moral hazard. One key reason the U.S. healthcare system is so wildly expensive relative to the benefits provided (where the comparison is other economically advanced countries, where people get comparably good healthcare for much less) is that we have half of a free market system, in effect - which can be worse than no market system at all. Consumer demand drives the market, but it is largely the demand of subsidized consumers who are not actually paying at the margin for what they get. Suppose that in the market for groceries or cars we had consumer demand in the driver's seat (as we do), except that people didn't actually have to pay for what they purchased (or maybe they just had a small co-pay). Whole Foods and GM might like this, but it wouldn't be good socially. Yet in healthcare, that's effectively what we have, much of the time, for people on Medicare, Medicaid, or employer-provided health insurance that overpays at the margin (relative to the optimal insurance level) due to the distorting effect of the tax subsidy.
Perhaps the food or cars analogy overstates the problem in a couple of respects. Good food and cars are fun in themselves, getting healthcare isn't and hence I'd generally only do it out of the belief that my health will benefit. Plus, doctors to a large extent tell healthcare consumers what to do. But the latter is actually a big part of the problem - they don't bear the marginal costs either, and have some reasons of both ideology and self-interest (earn more fees or practice overly defensive medicine) for recommending treatments that aren't actually worth their cost to the patient.
So we have a terrible healthcare system that surely could be vastly improved. I take the Administration to be addressing the adverse selection problem by extending health insurance to the uninsured population. Also, it may want to address under-treatment of this population (which exists alongside over-treatment of others), which I think of as a distributional issue, because being sick and treatable, but unable to afford the treatment, should raise one's estimate of the marginal utility that a transfer via free provision of the needed service would provide.
The Administration would also perhaps like to address the moral hazard problem, which is a key input to the horrendous problems of long-term fiscal unsustainability that the U.S. currently faces. Many observers are skeptical, I would guess rightly, of the progress that the current proposal would make on this front. Unfortunately, addressing it really requires bipartisanship, since cutting benefits is politically unpopular. And the Republicans couldn't make any clearer their unwillingness to cooperate in any sort of good faith effort to address waste and put healthcare outlays on a sustainable path.
One of the many offensive and odious aspects of the Republicans' hateful lying about death panels and the like is that they are actually the ones who want to provide less treatment. For those among them who are sane and believe in civil society, this mainly reflects concern about moral hazard and/or a libertarian distributional view. The rest, apparently a large majority of their number, do not bear discussing.