DeGette upbeat on health care reform

By Richard Haugh
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A major health care reform bill probably will pass Congress by August, said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-CD 1. But the bill isn’t likely to establish a single-payer system run by the federal government, the Denver congresswoman said.

On Tuesday, DeGette promoted sweeping health care reform before a Denver City Club luncheon at the Brown Palace. DeGette is vice chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the committee with jurisdiction over national health care policy. She also announced a statewide round of community forums starting in June to gather public input on health reform.

DeGette’s goal mirrors the goal of the Obama administration: health care coverage for all U.S. citizens. In his budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, President Obama has proposed a $634 billion reserve fund to kick-start health care reform.

The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t guarantee health care for all, DeGette said Tuesday. With 47 million Americans uninsured — including 800,000 in Colorado — the need for a new health system is clear, she said, brushing aside worries about launching a big new health program during a recession.

“On the contrary. It is precisely the right time. Millions of jobs at risk means health care for millions is at risk,” she said. “We will never achieve our full economic potential as a
nation if we don’t free ourselves from the ball and chain of a dysfunctional health system.”

Congress has taken steps to address the uninsured issue, including increasing Medicaid payments to uninsured children, extending unemployment benefits and subsidizing health insurance premiums for laid off workers. But the nation needs a more comprehensive approach, DeGette said.

Her committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is holding hearings on reform proposals, as is the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. DeGette said she expects a bill resulting from both committees will create a program similar to one that has been operating in Massachusetts for several years.

That program requires nearly every citizen to have health insurance and provides premium assistance for those under certain income levels. It also allows people to keep their private policies and continue to see their personal physicians — something health reform critics say a government-run system wouldn’t allow. DeGette dismissed those critics.

“Disregard the fear mongers, and let there be no doubt — socialized medicine is not coming to America,” she said. “Let’s be clear. Such an approach has neither public nor political support.”

Any reformed health system must be based on three pillars, DeGette said.

First, everyone must have access to health insurance, either through private insurance or a public plan such as that available to federal employees.

Second, the health system must be affordable. DeGette said that can be achieved by investing in health information technology and electronic health records, by allowing the Medicare program to negotiate drug prices and by promoting preventive care — what she called a “prevention dividend.”

Third, health care must be “portable” and stay with a person despite other changes in their life.

“No one should lose their health coverage just because they lose their job or move to another state,” she said.

Critics of reform plans such as DeGette’s say allowing the federal government to offer health insurance will, by virtue of its size and buying power, drive private insurers out of business. Others, such as physicians say requiring the purchase of electronic health records — a proposal DeGette says will lower costs and improve quality of care — is too expensive and will drive doctors out of business. Meanwhile, drug makers are fiercely opposed to allowing price negotiation. Such negotiation is routine in the Medicaid program, which spends far less each year on drugs than Medicare.

On a related note, DeGette was scheduled to receive the Healthcare Leadership Council’s (HLC) “Gateway to Innovation” award in a ceremony Thursday at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver. Recipients of the award are selected by the HLC, a coalition of chief executives of many of the nation’s leading health care companies and organizations representing all health care sectors.

Rick@coloradostatesman.com