Conference Call with Sen Jeff Merkley


This afternoon I had the pleasure of participating in a BlogHer conference call on health care reform with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Sen. Merkley gave a brief statement on the goals of health care reform, saying that it will have an exchange to allow individuals and small business to buy health insurance as part of a large pool. In addition, there will be insurance reforms and investments in wellness and prevention.

After that, Sen. Merkley took questions from members of the BlogHer community. I got to ask the first question, which I have to admit was a teensy bit cool. Here’s what I asked, kinda-sorta verbatim to the best of my recollection:

“I had a spinal cord injury in 2005 and was paralyzed from the neck down. I regained my mobility but I still have a lot of health problems. I’ve been on disability and Medicaid since then. I am hoping to work my way to self-employment but I need affordable health insurance in order to do that. My guess is that the public option will be my best bet. We’ve heard Sen. Reid say that they’re talking about talking about the public option. So what is the status of the public option?”

Sen. Merkley told me that my situation is a good example of why we need health care reform. He said I would benefit from insurance reforms, such as not being denied coverage to a pre-existing condition. He explained I would be able to go to the new insurance exchange, where I could choose from a variety of difference insurance plans, including “hopefully a public option.” Sen. Merkley told me he is working very hard for a public option. “I think the odds are very good”, he said, speaking of the likelihood of a public option being in the final bill.

Looking back at my notes now, I wish I would have asked a follow-up question. I wish I would have asked what the public option would actually do. Who would be eligible? How much would co-pays, premiums and deductibles be? Would there be networks of preferred providers?

Oh well. Maybe I’ll get chance to ask another lawmaker that question. I hope so.

On to the next question: Audrey from Maine, asked why tort reform wasn’t a bigger part of the current push for health care reform. Sen. Merkley explained that tort reform, which has already been done in some states, has not substantially reduced the cost to citizens. In fact, it seems to have had about a 1% (yikes!) impact on the cost to citizens. Furthermore, he said tort reform would take away citizens’ fundamental right to sue for gross negligence.

Audrey also asked why there isn’t a bigger emphasis on health care savings accounts in the current debate. Sen. Merkley replied that most working Americans aren’t able to put money into a health care savings account. “It may be a nice addition to reform… It doesn’t get to the heart of the problem,” he said.

Susan, from Madison, WI, noted the lack of bipartisanship in the current debate on health care, particularly on the public option and wondered what issues Democrats and Republicans are able to find some consensus on. Sen. Merkley said there was bipartisan support for investments in wellness and prevention, disease management, growing the health care workforce and providing incentives to employees to stay healthy.

Sen. Merkley said the biggest difference between Democrats and Republicans is over the public option. Republicans believe in a for-profit health care system but “I couldn’t disagree more,” he said. He explained that he wants a system dedicated to healing people not to profits and shareholders.

Susan asked the senator what it would take to bring bipartisanship back to the issue of the public option. Sen. Merkley explained that some of the compromises currently being discussed might help, such as the opt-out idea, where states can opt-out of the public option if their governor or state legislatures decide to do so.

The final question came from Karalee in California (sorry if I got your name wrong, Karalee). Her family is uninsured and her son was just diagnosed with diabetes. Karalee asked if health care reform is passed, what will fill in the gaps for families like hers until the legislation goes into effect in 2013?

In my opinion, this is one of the best questions of the day (besides mine, of course). Sen. Merkley agreed saying, “It’s an excellent question. Unfortunately, I don’t have an excellent answer.” He went on to say that he has been asking these exactly questions on Capitol. He thinks that states should be allowed to set up their public options and insurance exchanges earlier than 2013 if they’re ready. Stay tuned, he said, because debate on this issue is still underway.

With that, the conference call wrapped up. Thank you, BlogHer and Sen. Jeff Merkley!

Seriously? No Public Option?

Today is one of those days where my body is laughing at me saying, “Ha! You really think you could ever work a normal full-time job? Seriously? Are you out of your blooming mind?!” I won’t go into the details but suffice it to say that mobility returned to the extremities but not all of the internal organs. You figure it out. In any case, my full-time job over the last few days has simply been taking care of my physical needs.

I guess that’s why I’m on disability. I really wish I weren’t and I am working hard towards the day when I won’t be. As I’ve said before, I need low-cost health insurance (and a living wage) to get off SSI and Medicaid. That’s why I’m in favor of the public option.

But what the heck, President Obama? Over the past 48 hours, the Obama administration appears to be backing away from the public option. At Saturday’s town hall, President Obama gave a long-winded, three-point answer in response to one question on the public option. Later, while discussing whether or not a private plans could compete with a public option, he said:

This is a legitimate debate to have. All I’m saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it, is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it.

Then, yesterday HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told John King on CNN that the public option is “not essential.” Watch:

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was on CBS’ Face the Nation, where he where he said, “the bottom line for this for the president is, what we have to have is choice and competition in the insurance market.” He did say that the president favored the public option “thus far.” Watch:

On the one hand, I can live without a public option. My only main objective is that health insurance is affordable for low-income people like me. On the hand, seriously?! What the hell have we gone through all of this crazy B.S. for if there won’t be a public option. I’ve shed tears over this. Last week, I stood on a picnic table in front of strangers and briefly told my story. I let Sen. Russ Feingold tell the entire world my story on the Senate floor, all the freakin’ hope that maybe someday I will be financially independent again.

If Obama was going to cave on the public option, why bother even talking about it in the first place?  This country has been torn even further apart because the Fox News crowd  is using “socialized medicine” to stir up racial tensions. Members of Congress have gotten death threats. In my personal life, I fear I have lost or damaged at least one relationship with a loved one over this issue.

If Obama was going to cave on the public option, why did any of us even bother? Why did we elect him in the first place? I voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary and I’m really proud I did. Where is my fierce advocate in the White House?

Progressives, if you believe in the public option, now is the time to get busy. Call, write, email, fax or tweet your representative and senators. (Find your representative here and your senators here. See top of page on both websites.) Last night on Twitter, Melissa Harris-Lacewell (@harrislacewell) suggested that everyone contact the White House demanding they support the public option. You can do that here.

The time is now. We need health care reform. We need a public option.

About Last Night('s Health Care Rally)

Last night, I went to a pro-health care rally organized by Organizing for America. When I got there, there were lots of people holding signs and the crowd was mixed fairly evenly, half pro-reform, half against.  Some of the anti-reform signs were hideous so I took lots of pictures.  I had to laugh to myself as the pro-reform crowd tended to congregate on the left side of the grassy square while the antis were on the right. I don’t think this was intentional but it was still amusing, nonetheless.

When the rally got started, one of the first speakers was a woman in her sixties or seventies (I’m horrible about guessing ages). She talked about the thousands of dollars of debt she and her husband incurred when he had a lengthy stay at a long-term care facility. In addition to Medicare, they have a supplemental health insurance policy, which was supposed to reimburse them for their upfront costs, but of course, the insurance company never did.

While the woman was speaking, I heard a lot of murmurs and mumbling and grumbling behind me. I was pretty obvious the anti-reformers didn’t understand the moral of this woman’s story: the need to reform the insurance industry.

Another woman spoke who was a former mayor (or high ranking official) from De Pere, WI, which is by Green Bay. I thought she was pretty antagonistic towards the anti-reformers. She kept saying, “If you’re happy with the status quo…” and then throwing out statistics like, “In the last nine years, insurance premiums have gone up 90% for the average Wisconsin family.” I have no idea where she got her information from, as she didn’t tell us. It’s become a pet peeve of mine that people in positions of authority throw these fancy figures around to impress us and then expect us to believe them without batting an eye. Unfortunately, that happens far too often.

I digress. My apologies.

Back to the woman from De Pere. She wasn’t giving a speech. She was giving a lecture to the anti-reformers.  It wasn’t effective because it didn’t open up the dialogue. When you talk down to people, they’re not going to listen to you. I’m fairly certain she did not change a single person’s mind about health care reform last night.

A local dental hygienist who is a breast cancer survivor also spoke. She and her husband, a veterinarian, buy private insurance at considerable cost to them. It’s very expensive but at least she has insurance. She was grateful she was able to receive treatment for her breast cancer. A friend of hers wasn’t so lucky. When she found a lump, she had to save for two months in order to have enough money to go to the doctor. The friend had to save money for another couple months to go back to have testing done.

The dental hygienist also told us about another friend who died several years ago because she couldn’t afford her seizure medicine.

Dr. Tom Gabert, an internist in Minocqua, WI, was the keynote speaker. (I looked up his name, heh. I apologize for not knowing the others.) He talked about reforming health care to make medicine more patient-centric not money-centric. He said money is always the number one topic of discussion when it comes to health care, not prevention or wellness. He told us about the countless patients who have asked him to lie about pre-existing conditions so they can get health insurance.

Dr. Gabert said many of his colleagues have left medicine because dealing with health insurance is so difficult. He added, “which is a form of rationing, by the way.” He went on to explain that the health care industry is driven far more by profit than by actual health care. For example, they (clinics and hospitals) make the least amount of money on women and children but they spend a lot of time wooing that demographic anyways. Why? So moms and kids convince Grandpa to come to their hospitals and clinics for hip replacements (and other old man stuff), which is profitable. Another example: the fancy helicopter services and heart care clinics being advertised on billboards, in newspapers and on television. The health industry spends big bucks trying to impress consumers to come to their clinics and hospitals based on their shiny new toys and pretty new facilities (sarcasm is mine) rather than spend money on keeping people healthy.

Dr. Gabert also spoke of the need for malpractice reform, which got big applause from the anti-reform crowd. They apparently think limiting the amount a doctor can be sued for medical malpractice is the magic panacea to the health care crisis. Good grief.

Another local physician, a pediatrician whose name I didn’t catch, spoke briefly about how important it is for kids to have health insurance. He said he believes Medicaid and S-CHIP are very good programs but unsustainable. He advocated a “Medicare for all” type of system.

The Anti-Health Care Rally

After the rally was over, the anti-reformers gathered on the right side of the square. I had been about to leave but I waited to see what was about to happen. Who doesn’t like a good train wreck, you know?

The first speaker was a middle-aged woman (I probably shouldn’t say that as she wasn’t that much older than I am). I couldn’t hear everything she said, but what I did hear alarmed, to say the least. A sampling:

  • “I don’t like Obama” after which somebody called out, “Where’s the birth certificate?” I only heard that once, though. Kudos to my fellow Hodags for (mostly) staying classy.
  • “I’m not against reform.” She continued on to say that she has worked all her life and put into the system. At this point, things got a little noisy and I honestly don’t know what she said next. I think she said she was entitled to her Social Security and Medicare but I can’t be sure.
  • She asked if anyone watched Fox News and Glenn Beck. She said she learned from watching Glenn Beck that if health care passes, Obama won’t cover babies up to two years of age. Yes, you read that right.
  • She brought up the “death panel” concept, saying that people over 65 wouldn’t have health insurance anymore. At this point, I raised my hand. All night, the need for civility and respect had been mentioned over and over. I didn’t want to be rude and heckle her so like a first grader, I raised my hand to ask a question. Since she brought up the “Obama wants to kill Grandma” idea that originates with the living will provision, I wanted to ask her if she had a living will. Of course, she never called on me.

The next person to speak was a man who said he worked with employers all over the country.  He said employers were very concerned about health care reform, to which the anti-reformers cheered.

I couldn’t figure out why. Why did these people care more about employers and businesses need than what we the patients need? Aren’t we all patients and human beings first? When you get laid off, your employer doesn’t give a flying fig if you have a migraine and need Imitrex or that you still have cancer and need radiation. They just don’t care. What the heck are these people thinking?

Well, by then I’d had it. When the gentleman was done speaking, I saw my opportunity and took it. These people needed to know what the stakes were. They needed to know that socialized medicine wasn’t evil, that human lives, indeed, my life was more important than all of this insanity that’s been going on lately.

I walked up to the picnic table and stood up on one of the benches.  I don’t have great balance so there was no way I was going on top of the picnic table.  The lady who spoke first at the anti-rally saw I was wobbly and came to give me a hand. (I appreciate it. ) Everyone looked at me expectantly.

Here’s what I said:

Four years ago, I was paralyzed from the neck down. I was four months away from being kicked off my parents’ health insurance so I was eligible for BadgerCare and Medicaid. This is the face of Medicaid. (I whipped my sunglasses off, hoping it was very dramatic.) I understand the budget and financial concerns, but this is about real people. This is the face of Medicaid.

Without my prescription sunglasses on, I couldn’t see anything. I could hear some murmurs and grumbling, though. I hadn’t planned on saying anything so after I spit out those few sentences on impulse, I had no idea what came next. I got down from the picnic tables and left the rally. By the time I got to my car, I was in tears. I was angry at the anti-reformers and at myself.

I was angry at the anti-reformers for allowing their racist and paranoid thinking to get in the way of my life and death need for health insurance. Instead of just listening to Glenn Beck and Fox News, they should be doing their own research. Read the damn bills and proposals, particularly the parts that controversial or confusing. Try and understand why we need health care reform. Contact your congressional delegation, express your concerns and ask them to handle this responsibly.

Please.

Please don’t tell me we don’t need anything to change.

I was also angry with myself. I had the bully pulpit for a few brief moments and I felt like I wasted it. I could have used it to advance the conversation but I don’t think I did. I wish I would have said,

This happened to me. Medicaid paid for services private insurance would not have and kept me out of bankruptcy at 25. As I try to work my way off disability and towards self-employment, I need low-cost health insurance. I think a public option would be a good idea, in addition to employer-sponsored policies, private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid and the like. I understand there are concerns about the budget and debt but simply saying no is not an option for people like me. Can we come up with another answer?

In the end, I don’t know what good will come of any of this. I wonder if I’m just needlessly stirring the pot by writing about my interpretation of last night’s events. I wonder if any of this is worth it.

This morning I had a doctor’s appointment in Wausau. It was a check-up and relatively minor. On the ride in and while I was at the doctor’s office, I was filled with a profound sense of gratitude that I do have Medicaid, that I am able to go to the doctor when I need to.

Someday, a day that I hope will come sooner rather than later, I will get off disability and Medicaid, but for now, socialized medicine has a place in society. It even has a face and it’s not some bizarre mockup of Barack Obama as Heath Ledger as The Joker.

I am the face of Medicaid. I am the face of socialized medicine. I am the face of health care reform.

It’s that personal for me and millions of other Americans.

We have to get it done.