The election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate last week has stirred up the debate over health care reform in Olympia.
Citing the apparent collapse of health care reform legislation in Congress, Washington Republicans are pressuring Democratic leaders to abandon their own reform agenda and hold hearings on Republican-sponsored bills.
But Gov. Chris Gregoire and other state leaders are pushing Congress to move ahead with a health care reform plan despite Brown’s election, which cost Senate Democrats the 60-vote supermajority they need to overcome a Republican filibuster over a federal health care reform bill.
“Regardless of one election, national health care reform is essential,” the governor said at a Monday press briefing. If Congress can’t pass comprehensive reform quickly, she said, it should at least boost federal reimbursement rates to help Washington cover its Medicare and Medicaid costs and health coverage for poor children.
The governor admitted she is worried that Congress won’t pass a funding package in time for the Legislature to make decisions on how to plug a $2.6 billion budget deficit. The Legislature adjourns March 11.
Action on health care reform in Olympia has been on hold this session. Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, who chairs the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, informed the committee’s four Republican members on the first day of the session that she would hold no hearings on bills unrelated to the implementation of federal health care reform. Instead, she said, Congress would be taking the lead.
She said in a letter that the committee “will be focused on aligning the health care system in Washington state with the reforms mandated” by Congress to ensure a smooth transition.
Rep. Jaime Herrera, R-Camas, said that all changed with Brown’s election Jan. 19 to fill the seat held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the U.S. Senate’s leading champion of health care reform. Brown has made it clear he would vote against the House health care reform bill.
“That whole situation just got sideways,” said Herrera, a member of the state Health Care Committee. “We are calling on (Cody) to relook at some of these bills.”
In Olympia, House Republicans have introduced a slate of bills, many of them holdovers from previous sessions, that would allow health care plans licensed in other states to be marketed in Washington; give owners of small businesses more options to provide health insurance to their workers; allow the sale of scaled-down health care plans specifically tailored to the needs of young adults; and give state workers the option of setting up health savings accounts.
Other bills would enact comprehensive health care liability reform and protect the rights of Washington residents to make their own health care choices.
Herrera said she is particularly interested in offering young adults an affordable, no-frills plan.
“Half of the uninsured in Washington are young adults,” she said. “If we can get a plan to them that is a core benefit plan, we’ll save costs in the emergency room.”
“I don’t expect Chair Cody to hear all these bills, but I do think we need to explore solutions, especially now,” she added. “There is no magic solution to our health care problems, but (the GOP) bills offer some options to move us in the right direction.”
“I’m puzzled by Republicans making a big deal about this letter,” Cody said in response. “I’ve scheduled almost 50 percent of their bills.”
Specifically, she said, her committee will hold hearings on a medical savings account bill and on a bill requested by the Association of Washington Business that would allow out-of-state insurance carriers to sell policies to small businesses within Washington until national health care reform goes into effect.
Cody said time has run out to schedule additional hearings in this short session. Besides, she said, she hasn’t given up on federal health care reform.
“I’m still in a holding pattern,” she said. “I expect the Congress to still move forward on something. It may not be the Senate bill, but I would hope that they could agree and get something out.” She noted that 80 percent of the House and Senate bills are in agreement.
Meanwhile, state GOP Chairman Luke Esser went on the attack against Democratic legislators who signed on to an open letter sponsored by the Progressive States Network last summer that supported a public option as part of national health care reform.
“The stunning defeat of (Democrat) Martha Coakley in Massachusetts should send a message to Washington state Democrats supporting the federal takeover of health care,” Esser wrote on his blog last week.
Esser singled out Democratic legislators from swing districts in Washington, including Sen. Craig Pridemore and Rep. Deb Wallace, both of Vancouver. Pridemore, Wallace and Herrera all are running for the open 3rd Congressional District seat this year.
“Massachusetts went Republican because of Nancy Pelosi’s health care program and Washington state voters are every bit as independent and angry as ‘Taxachusetts’ voters,” Esser wrote. “Voters do not want the federal government to become the world’s largest HMO. These big-spending legislators have broken the state budget and their endorsement of the federal takeover shows they have not learned a thing.”
“It’s a shame Luke is more interested in politicizing the issue rather than proposing any kind of genuine health care reform,” Pridemore said. “At this point, I would be willing to support some version of the House or Senate proposals. I continue to believe, however, that we would be much better off with a public option or, better still, a single-payer system.”
Wallace did not respond to a request for comment.
In the letter to President Obama and congressional leaders, the liberal network noted the vital role states play in providing health care.
“Americans recognize that the private sector alone has proven incapable of creating a high-quality, fair and accountable health care system that works for all families,” the letter said. “Therefore, a key priority for reform is the choice of a public health insurance plan that is available to businesses, individuals, and families.”
The Spokesman-Review contributed to this story.