The "managed care backlash" arguably topped the list of media and policy concerns in 1998. Yet, against the background of the highly charged environment in which the future of our health care system continues to be debated, there is a dearth of concrete, "objective" facts on the nature of the changes, the reasons for them, and their meaning. An analysis of five important themes that emerged from a review of the recent literature on health system change concludes that an inherent tension exists between the interest in rapidly driving down health care costs through organizational change and the long time frames that are required to make fundamental changes in structure, process, and orientation. Unfortunately, in an environment in which purchasers are driven to seek cost savings and the political will supports a pluralistic and mixed public/private system, the health system may chart an alternative course, with the result that purchasers may rely increasingly on individual cost sharing and continue to cut back the amount of coverage they are willing to offer. The real challenge for public policy makers is to confront the issues directly, avoiding political incentives to adopt easy and fast solutions for these complex matters.