"Leave your party label at home and don't tell anyone what party you are in when you get here." With those instructions, a hundred or so strangers, from all walks of life across this great country, gathered to debate serious issues at a legislative leadership conference. In hindsight, it was brilliant. Free from political noise and posturing, we were thus able to apply our best ideas to social issues without suspicion or finger-pointing.

Is it not possible to do the same with the health care debate? This, after all, is the country that put a man on the moon. Surely we have the collective ability to solve this problem.

There are some things we all agree with. We have the finest medical delivery system in the world and we don't want to lose it. However, access to that system is a problem. Too many are uninsured or underinsured, costs are out of control, and a patchwork of access points causes needless bureaucracy. Most would probably also agree that insurance tied to employment inhibits an individual's freedom to make life and career changes.

On one side of this debate are those who seek complete government control. There are good and bad things associated with this approach. On the good side, government can mandate access and equal benefits for all citizens. On the bad side, government has a reputation for buying six hundred dollar toilet seats and I.T. systems that do not work. Potential dangers also exist with too much government control. Cherished constitutional limitations can be breached. Government will always be tempted to restrict what individuals do in their "pursuit of happiness" when those activities are perceived as driving up costs.

On the other side are those who seek complete free market control. There are good and bad things associated with this approach as well. On the good side, competition in the free marketplace has a demonstrated track record of keeping prices low and quality high. It eliminates constitutional concerns. Unfortunately, with health insurance, an unfettered free market is not designed to achieve equal access or coverage for all.

Perhaps it is time to consider a hybrid system built on the best attributes of both sides. This would require one side to acknowledge that a free market component could maintain quality and keep costs down. The other side would have to acknowledge that government control will be necessary to achieve the desired result of equal access and coverage.

Fortunately, we do have precedent. Take, for instance, our interstate highway system. Competition, with government-set parameters and monitoring, has built what is arguably the world's best road system.

It would not run afoul of our Constitution for the federal government to set parameters for access and basic coverage if we accept that concept under the General Welfare clause. There is no threat to those seeking universal coverage when competitors are allowed to cross state lines to offer products. The ultimate resolution requires more expertise than this writer possesses, but I'd submit the best solution is a national, not state, model. Let's check our political weapons at the door and enter the room with a desire to help each other reach the right result.

Joe Benning is the state senator for Caledonia-Orange District.