Three months ago, in one of my very first columns for this paper, I wrote that Republicans were at a loss as to what to do about health care. Rival factions were tearing the party apart and it was fairly clear that leadership lacked a comprehensive strategy – or, indeed, a strategy of any kind – to fulfill their campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.

In the meantime, as we’ve gone from mid-spring to mid-July, a whole host of summertime traditions have reasserted themselves: traffic jams in Wiscasset, the Red Sox being in first place, Orioles fans eagerly anticipating the start of football season.

Still, though, Republicans remain stuck on health care. The passage of the House version of “repeal and replace” hasn’t led to any progress at all in the Senate, where leadership held off on a vote last week to await the return of John McCain, who’s been in the hospital. That didn’t matter much in the end, though, as it became clear that McConnell lacked the votes to begin debate on any health care bill, whether it was repeal or repeal and replace. He faces the same dilemma that Paul Ryan faced months ago: Conservatives want more of a repeal, moderates want more of a replacement and Democrats aren’t interested in either.

You can hardly blame Democrats for being gleeful observers as Republicans spin their wheels. If Republicans do nothing, their base is angered and that benefits Democrats politically. If they succeed in repealing Obamacare but lack a viable alternative, Democrats could gain momentum from outraged independents as they prepare for the midterms. Policy-wise, liberals face a win-win too: If Obamacare is repealed, they can say it didn’t go far enough; if it stays in place and continues to fail, they can make the same claim. Either way, it strengthens their argument for a single-payer system.

The real problem isn’t just that Republicans are wrong on health care, or that Democrats are wrong on health care, but that everyone is wrong on health care. Whether they’re debating the repeal of Obamacare, the merits of single-payer or whether health care is a right, they’re all missing the point: The problem with health care is the cost, not the question of who pays for it.

This paper’s editorial board got it right a few weeks ago when it raised the cost issue. If costs were cut, the nation wouldn’t be paralyzed by a debate over health insurance, and there wouldn’t be the constant confusion over the difference between health insurance and health care. It’s long past time for both sides to ditch the partisan rhetoric and searched for common ground on the issue.

One of the fundamental problems with the health care industry is that it’s not a free market. Health care providers (including drug companies) and insurers work together to hide the costs from the consumer in a way that just doesn’t happen in any other industry. This discourages consumers from shopping around for the best deal on a product that suits their needs, as they would for anything else. After all, if you didn’t know what the price of your car was and someone else was paying for it, would you be haggling over a used car or buying a fully loaded new one?

Maine took a step toward fixing that this past legislative session by passing L.D. 445. Sponsored by Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, with the strong support of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the legislation encourages consumers to shop around for health care by requiring health insurance companies to provide more information about the cost of services. This moves health care closer toward a free market, without depriving consumers of emergency care. It’s exactly the type of legislation that free-market conservatives should advocate, and thanks to plenty of hard work it sailed through the Maine Legislature.

This is a perfect example of the type of common-sense conservative approach that found widespread support in Maine and could nationally, as well. Of course, at a federal level it would face more opposition from the insurance industry and its lobbyists, but it would find more supporters on the left and in the middle than anything Republicans have proposed thus far.

President Ronald Reagan once said that “self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly.” Right now, ideologues on both sides are engaging in the self-delusion that their approach is the only way. It’s high time for Americans of all stripes to demand they abandon that folly.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel