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!