Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., spent an hour on the telephone Tuesday answering questions from around the state about the health care reform legislation being written in a committee he chairs. “The real goal here is to lower the cost of health care in America, or at least lower the rate of growth of health care costs,” Baucus said at one point. The event was a statewide town hall meeting conducted by telephone. AARP Montana sponsored the conference, in which Montanans could listen in by telephone and, by pressing some keys, be given the opportunity to ask a question or make a comment. Montanans from around the state did ask a series of questions, largely focused on the impact on retirees. Baucus, who participated from his office in Helena, was joined by AARP National Board Chair Bonnie Cramer from Raleigh, N.C., and the organization’s senior vice president of government relations and advocacy, David Sloane, in Washington. In his opening remarks, Baucus said he believes Congress essentially has to do three things in its efforts to reform the nation’s health care system: One is to “get a better handle on” the ever-increasing costs, the next is to reform the health insurance market primarily to prevent excluding coverage due to preexisting conditions or health problems, and the last is to improve the quality of and remove waste from the health care system. Cramer said that there is a lot of talk in the media about AARP’s position on health care reform and what it has endorsed. The association has endorsed nothing at this point, she said. “As yet, there is not one comprehensive bill to support or oppose,” Cramer added, saying three bills have come out in the House, one from a Senate committee and the one from the Finance Committee, which Baucus chairs, is still under construction. “It is changing minute to minute,” she added. After being asked by one caller how she could convince her friends that Baucus was working for Montana rather than the insurance industry Baucus has received more than $3 million in campaign contributions from that industry in the last six years Baucus lashed out at people who say he is selling out on health reform. “I resent any implication that contributions influence any of my decisions,” Baucus said. Baucus said he has voted in support for any campaign reform that has come up in the Senate, but the system is what it is to be elected, candidates need to raise money. That does not mean contributions influence decisions, he said. Baucus said that, at the end of the day, he has to live with himself and what he has done in the Senate. “I am here to do what is right,” he said. Much of the proposals deal with putting pressure on insurance companies, Baucus said. “We are really putting the kibosh on the insurance industry; we are really putting the screws down on them,” he said. The main focus is on increasing competition possibly including a public option similar to Medicare or Medicaid, or using a cooperative system and on preventing companies from excluding people from coverage because of preexisting conditions or previous problems, Baucus said. Cancer survivors or people with diabetes or allergies cannot get coverage from many companies. “That’s just wrong,” he said. While the insurance industry is resisting many aspects of reform, the resistance is not as strong as people may think, he added the companies realize that what they lose in single profits will be made up by having more customers. He said the reform intends to allow all Americans to buy coverage, but it will be up to the individual what to buy. If they want, they can buy top-of-the line coverage, known in the industry as the platinum level. ”That’s better than mine,” Baucus added. The goal of the reform is to come up with an American system, combining public and private options, he said. “We’re not Canada, we’re not Britain, we’re not Switzerland ,” Baucus said. “We need to come up with a unique solution.” He said part of what he is trying to do is dispel misinformation going around about the proposed reforms. “There is a lot of myths going around about health care reform in Washington, D.C. One is about deficits ,” he said in response to a question from a caller in Belgrade. “The myth is it will add a trillion dollars to the federal deficit, and that’s not true. Not one thin dime will be added to the deficit. It’s all paid for,” Baucus said. He said most of the reform will be paid for through cuts in federal spending, with about a third of the price tag paid by taxes on large insurance companies. That will not impact U.S. citizens, he added. “No ordinary American will pay one cent in tax increases, because it’s all paid for,” Baucus said. In response to that caller, he also addressed the idea that the plan will cover illegal aliens in the United States. He said language in the Finance Committee bill would prevent that. “It will set up a system so all Americans get coverage, but not illegals,” Baucus said. After another caller pointed out that hospitals cannot refuse emergency care to anyone, including illegal aliens, Baucus expanded on his comment. The bill would not provide financial assistance to illegal immigrants, although expenses hospitals incur treating them would have to be passed on to others. “This is not a black and white issue, it is shades of gray ,” Baucus said. “A lot of it will be passed on, you are correct.” When asked about the impact on small business owners, Baucus said the reform would benefit all business owners. “If we do nothing costs will skyrocket for small businesses as well as other Americans,” he said. A provision in the Finance Committee bill also would provide additional benefits for businesses with 10 or fewer employees, he added. The government would pay for half of what the business pays in premiums for its employees if premiums cost $12,000 and the business was paying $6,000 of that, “Uncle Sam will pay $3,000,” Baucus said. He said part of reducing the costs is eliminating waste and trying to increase the quality of care, including preventative care. The bill proposes increasing the amount paid by government programs to primary care physicians, and emphasizing the quality of care. “There is an awful lot of waste in our health care system,” Baucus said, adding later that, “We have a wasteful system in part because we pay doctors and hospitals by volume, not by quality.” Baucus responded to several callers by saying their existing coverage, including Medicare, Medicaid and military insurance, would not be taken away. In fact, he said, by controlling costs and improving efficiency of the system, those programs would be strengthened. “We’re just trying to make the best in the system work better, and that will help reduce the costs,” he said.