Thursday, October 15, 2009

Senators promise to fight for the public option

by Peter St. Cyr

Two healthcare-insurance measures continue to move forward in the nation's capitol this week, and both U.S. Senators from New Mexico are pledging to keep the public option alive.

But, reform still faces an arduous trek through Capitol Hill and on to the president's desk.

"I'm going to, at every stage, try to make sure that a public option is included. It's a serious fight. It's hard to predict. I'd say right now it's about 50-50," Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) said.

"I believe this is the best way to keep insurance honest, (and) bring down costs. It will also get more uninsured small business employees and families insured,” Udall said.

U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, who has sits on Senate Finance Committee, and has been on the 'gang of six' senators developing the America's Healthy Future Act, was on the winning side of a 14 to 9 vote on Tuesday.

The measure can now be merged with a bill approved earlier this year by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and debated on the Senate floor. As the only Democrat who serves on both the HELP and Finance Committees, Bingaman was in a unique position to influence both pieces of legislation.

“We have been talking about health insurance reform for decades. With this vote, we’re finally on a path to enacting it,” Bingaman said. “This bill reduces the growth in health care costs, which is important to all American families but particularly important to New Mexican families, who are expected to experience the highest growth in premiums in the nation if reform is not enacted.

The Act would prevent insurance companies from denying health insurance to Americans because they have pre-existing conditions.

"It also prevents insurance companies from capping coverage at an annual or lifetime level," Bingaman said. "And, if Americans like the coverage they have, they can keep it Bingaman said. In short, it is a very good bill for Americans and, in particular New Mexicans, who already have insurance.”

Bingaman is a strong supporter of the public option -- a health care plan available to all Americans receiving coverage in newly formed health insurance “exchanges” that focuses exclusively on providing care, not turning a profit. The Finance Committee bill does not contain a public option, but Bingaman is hopeful that the final bill sent to the president contains a public option or another plan that would provide an affordable health care plan for all Americans to choose from.

Udall emerges as a public option leader on the Senate Floor

On October 8th, Udall, along with 29 other senators, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). The senators expressed concern that without a competitive and robust public insurance option, health reform legislation will not produce nationwide access and ongoing cost containment.

On Wednesday, Udall told New Mexico radio reporters (via a teleconference call) that he's pleased two bills have emerged -- one from the Senate Finance Committee, the second from the Health Care Committee.

"This is another crucial step towards insuring access to quality affordable health care for everyone," Udall said.

"What I like about the bill is that we move dramatically down the road of insuring more Americans. I also like the fact that this is deficit neutral. It's about a $829 billion dollar bill. The projection of the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) is that it actually saves $81 billion down the road. So that's something that is obviously positive."

No predictions

Udall said it would be hard to predict where the public option will be inserted into the final measure.

In Washington there are three avenues still available to lawmakers to insert the public option. It could be inserted during the process of merging the two committees, during floor debate, or by the president and congressional leaders during a conference report.

"We had a small meeting with a group of senators, very privately with Sen. Harry Reid," Udall said. "We urged him to meld it in as he's developing a bill for the senate floor. I would like it to be the base bill that proceeds to the Senate floor. If that can't be done, I know that many of us feel that one of our opportunities is to add it to the senate floor. If not, we're going to be pushing to have it put in at the conference level. That will mean it will be in the final bill."

While Senate Majority Leader Reid is on record supporting the public option his primary job is to get 60 votes to get the bill off the senate floor. So as Reid canvases the vote, Udall is among a small group, of eight senators who have been actively supporting the public option on the floor.

Udall said Reid credits the group with keeping the public option alive.

"He's going to work with us and he's going to do what he can to move us forward," Udall said.

Meanwhile, the state's junior U.S. Senator says he'd like to see some improvements in the final measure.

"We could add more people in," Udall said. "The prediction is that about ten years down the line with the senate bill we will still have 17 million people who will be uninsured. So we could do a better job at chipping away at that."

Udall also said he's looking for ways to make sure the health care needs of rural areas are protected in the final bill.

"We talk rural, but we really have a division there. There's rural and there's frontier. And the frontier areas as the designation is called really don't have any health care at all. We need more primary care physicians. We need them to be in rural areas,' Udall said. "We need to supplement, and put the resources behind those loan repayment programs, so that we can get doctors and other health care personnel out in rural areas."

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says nobody should expect a health care reform bill to pass the Senate anytime soon. McConnell insists whatever bill emerge onto the floor will be debated "extensively and at length."'

The Health insurance industry remains opposed to the public option

Udall said a report released by the insurance industry indicating insurance costs would increase with a bill's passage is one-sided.

"It actually proves why we need reform," Udall said. "Healthcare costs are absolutely out of control. We're talking about costs going up way past inflation. In the past we've had this dramatic increase of I think about 130%. In the future we're looking at those same kinds of increases unless something is done and that's what the Senate Finance bill and the bill out of the Health Committee are trying to get a hold of."

Udall also pushing for reform to Indian health

On Thursday he joined 15 Senate colleagues and introduced major legislation to improve health care for 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country – the Indian Health Care Improvement Reauthorization and Extension Act of 2009.

Udall said too many American Indians are still struggling to receive quality care.

"It will bring much needed reforms to the Indian health care system and will allow us to connect Indian health improvements to national reform," Udall said. "It will also reauthorize the Indian healthcare improvements act so Indian county can better predict a plan for its health care needs."

It includes a measure that Udall help develop to help address a growing crisis in Indian country: teen suicide.

"The rate of suicide among Native Americans and Alaskan Native populations is 70 percent higher than the general United State's population. New Mexico which has the 5th highest Native American population in the country, also has the seventh highest rate of suicide from youth from ages 10 to 24 years."

Originally posted on NMPolitics.Net

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