Health care reform backers prepare for push in Washingtonby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Congress began work this week on sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation's health care system. And while much of the action will be taking place in Washington over the next few months, here in Minnesota reformers are gearing up to make their voices heard.
St. Paul, Minn. — As talk of health care reform heats up, so does the excitement of groups who are pushing for major changes in the system.
It's never been easier to recruit members to his cause, said Dan McGrath, executive director of the grassroots organization TakeAction Minnesota.
"In the month of March here at TakeAction Minnesota, we signed up over 700 new members on a message of reforming the health care system now. That's quadruple what we've ever done in any March previously," McGrath said.
The impact of the recession is certainly helping recruitment. McGrath says lots of people have lost their health care benefits as they've lost their jobs, and many others are worried the same could happen to them. His organization will take that message of concern to Washington, he says.
"Now is the time to make sure that our federal elected officials, those in the Minnesota delegation, know exactly what sorts of reforms we want to see happen," McGrath said.
The group's first priority is to create a public health insurance option that anyone could access -- such as Medicare or the federal benefits plan used by members of Congress.
They also want insurance options that are priced based on a family's ability to pay, and strict regulation of the insurance industry. Finally, they're asking that any new health care reforms guarantee equity for people of color, to address inequities in health care.
His group's priorities are simple and easy to understand, McGrath says. He thinks that's an asset going into this newest round of discussions.
"One of the lessons from the early '90s when health care reform was tried, was that this 1,300-page bill was rolled out and it ended up being a bill that many in the reform community ended up fighting over, as opposed to fighting for," McGrath said.
He's not saying there won't be any fighting this time around. But McGrath says he thinks the tone is already quite different.
David Arons, a lobbyist with the American Cancer Society of Minnesota, agrees.
"At this early stage in the health care reform debate there's been more collaboration and agreement between insurance companies, drug companies and consumers groups, hospital groups than there was in 1993," Arons said.
For example, insurers are offering to give up their right to deny coverage to some people if everyone is required to have insurance, Arons said. That's a huge turnaround, he says, and it bodes well for reform efforts.
"We at the Cancer Society have drunk the Kool-Aid, if you will, that health care reform is coming. It's going to happen," said Arons.
But Americans have heard that rhetoric many times before.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, says there's no question that health care reform remains an uphill battle.
"I have been in this town 22 years. I have learned with great repetition that the devil is in the details," said Conrad. "We can all want to be doing something, and then it doesn't necessarily always prove to be so."
It's Conrad's responsibility as head of the Budget Committee to make sure that whatever lawmakers do actually makes fiscal sense.
Right now the projected 10-year pricetag for President Obama's health care reform package is more than $630 billion.
For the president's plan to work, Conrad said, it's imperative that it actually reduces runaway health care costs without compromising the quality of care.
"And I believe we can do that. But look, we are a long way from having a full proposal that does it," Conrad said.
Several Democrat-led committees in Congress are working on their proposals now. They hope to pass the individual pieces of legislation before the August recess. That would allow them to consider a compromise bill in the fall.
By then, the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Pawlenty will have figured out what they're able to do on health care during the next two-year budget cycle. The budget shortfall makes painful cuts likely. But the state also has more health dollars headed its way from the federal stimulus package.
- All Things Considered, 04/22/2009, 5:20 p.m.