(Washington, D.C.) – Today U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) spoke on the Senate floor to respond to several healthcare proposals that President Bush mentioned in his State of the Union address.
Senator Murray warned that his plan could undermine the employer-based health insurance system, push people into the expensive individual insurance market, fail to provide coverage for our most vulnerable, and divert funds for the health care safety net to experimental programs.
"The President is finally bringing some ideas to the table and saying he wants to be part of the solution. I thank him for joining the debate, and I hope he's serious about working with us to address the challenges that have only gotten worse over the past 7 years," Senator Murray said.
Senator Murray cited the example of a Washington state resident who has faced serious challenges getting health insurance.
Senator Murray's remarks follow:
Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the health care proposals that President Bush mentioned in his State of the Union address last week.
For too long, as working families and businesses have struggled with rising costs and shrinking access, Washington, D.C. has virtually ignored the healthcare crisis. Now, with Democrats in control of Congress, the President is finally bringing some ideas to the table and saying he wants to be part of the solution. I thank him for joining the debate, and I hope he's serious about working with us to address the challenges that have only gotten worse over the past 7 years.
There may well be valuable ideas in his proposals. I want to get more details than we heard in the speech because there could be areas where we can agree.
However, from what I’ve seen of the President’s plan so far, I have serious concerns that his initiatives will -
- Undermine the employer-based health insurance system,
- Push people into the risky and expensive individual insurance market,
- Fail to provide coverage for our most vulnerable,
- And divert funds for the health care safety net to experimental programs.
1. Could Jeopardize Employer-based Health Insurance
My first concern is that that President's proposal will jeopardize the employer-based health insurance system. The most stable form of health insurance for America’s working families is through their employers. 155 million Americans receive health insurance from an employer.
One of the primary reasons why employers offer health insurance to their workers is because these benefits are excluded from taxable income. But the President’s proposal would take away this incentive by putting all forms of health insurance on an equal playing field.
Even if employers choose not to drop health care coverage, they may be forced to do so in the future as the healthiest employees drop out of their employer’s plans. If insurance becomes unaffordable, employers may be forced to stop offering health care benefits. I think many of my colleagues agree with me that we should be strengthening the employer-based health insurance system, not taking steps to jeopardize it.
2. Individual Insurance Market
Second, I'm concerned that the President’s proposal will push people into the individual insurance market. When workers can’t get coverage through their employer, they will need to purchase health insurance in the individual insurance market. But as any small businessman or self-employed woman will tell you, the individual insurance market today is not a good alternative to employer-provided coverage.
In many states, insurers can cherry-pick applicants to avoid enrolling those with high health needs, or insurance companies can sell different policies to high-and low-risk individuals. If you have a chronic disease like diabetes -- or even any prior health problem -- good luck getting reasonably-priced, comprehensive coverage in the individual market. Any proposal to increase access to health insurance should support the ability of Americans to receive affordable and comprehensive coverage – not force people into expensive, bare-bones insurance plans.
3. No Help for the Uninsured
Third, I'm troubled that the President’s proposal will not increase access to health insurance for the uninsured. We have 46 million uninsured men, women and children in this country. This is a staggeringly high number, and these people face daily challenges trying to avoid getting sick and going into debt when something unexpected happens. Every day, I hear from people in my home state of Washington who struggle to pay for their health care costs.
Unfortunately, President Bush’s proposal won’t help these people because they don’t pay enough money in taxes to benefit from this tax deduction. This makes me question whether the President’s plan will actually reduce the number of uninsured Americans.
4. Undermines the Health Care Safety Net
Finally, I am very concerned that the President’s plan that will further chip away at our health care safety net. It would divert critical Medicaid dollars into an experimental grant program. Although we don’t have a lot of details yet, he is proposing to use Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital payments to give states the ability to experiment with health care reform.
These DSH payments keep the doors of our public hospitals open. Public hospitals are the foundations of our communities. They not only provide emergency care, but they train doctors, support rural health care, and are the first lines of defense against pandemic flu and bioterror attacks. I am very concerned that this proposal could seriously jeopardize my state’s Medicaid funds, and therefore undermining these critical services.
Mr. President, I want to give an example of how these proposals could exacerbate the worst parts of our health insurance system. Last week, I received a letter from Alice and Michael Counts, constituents of mine from Vancouver, Washington. Their son, Wesley, was diagnosed with a kidney condition at age 16. Their family’s personal health insurer insisted that his kidney disease was pre-existing, and the insurer refused to pay for the medical tests diagnosing his condition.
Although his parents appealed to the Insurance Commissioner and won, the insurer raised its rates far beyond the reach of a self-employed individual. Later, when Wesley was going through dialysis and a kidney transplant, his employer dropped insurance coverage because it was too costly.
Throughout all these medical and financial ups and downs, Wesley has worked and graduated from Clark College. And thankfully, his parents have been able to help him navigate a healthcare system that has failed him. Wesley's parents wrote to me,
"We would rather pay higher taxes that give everyone affordable health care than live with the fear of losing everything through catastrophic illness."
Mr. President, Wesley’s story shows just how risky the individual market is, and how people with serious health problems can be severely affected when an employer is forced to drop coverage. No patient should have to live in fear that his next dialysis treatment won’t be covered by his insurance.
What Wesley deserves -- and what other Americans deserve -- is access to affordable, dependable, and comprehensive health care. The President's plan doesn't guarantee that. It doesn't even come close. It just makes the health insurance market more unstable and more risky and leaves people like Wesley more vulnerable. He deserves better than that. I think all Americans do.
We Need a Real Health Care Debate
So as I said at the beginning of my statement, I welcome the President’s attention to the health care crisis in this country. Last year, we devoted three days – only three days – to health care here on the Senate floor. The President probably spent even less time talking about health care – so this is an improvement. We desperately need a serious and thoughtful debate about how to increase access to health insurance.
We Have Health Care Solutions
My colleagues and I have put forth a number of good ideas about how to increase access to health care.
One of the first things we can do is reauthorize and strengthen the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. SCHIP provides quality health care to millions of uninsured children, and Congress should give states the funding and flexibility to cover more kids.
Second, we need to fund community health centers so they can continue to provide quality health care to the uninsured.
Third, I agree with the President that we should help states devise new ways to increase access to health care. My home state of Washington, like many others, is working on innovative initiatives to expand coverage. But we can accomplish this in ways that don’t chip away at the foundation of our public hospitals.
And finally, we can expand health insurance for small businesses and the self-employed by creating federal and state catastrophic cost pools in ways that will lower costs and still protect patients.
I look forward to working with Chairmen Kennedy and Baucus, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and the President on real health care reform. There are people like Wesley across the country, in each of our states, who are crying out for change, and we owe it to them to finally make the progress that is long overdue.