Gloucester County Times

Health Care Has Early Attention

Gloucester County Times —Sunday, May 24, 2009

By Jessica Coomes

WASHINGTON — With President Barack Obama in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress, health care reform is poised to be a top priority in Washington this summer.

Leaders already are debating how to address spiraling health care costs and the 47 million uninsured Americans.

"We're focusing on helping insured people keep their heads above water," U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st Dist., said. "And then we're focusing on uninsured people getting insured."

Andrews chairs a House subcommittee that he expects will consider part of the health care reform plan. A bill could move through the committee by early July and come to the House floor for a vote later that month, he said.

Andrews said people who like their private health care coverage should be able to keep it.

He also said insurance companies should be forced to compete with each other to lower costs. One way to do that is to create a government-run plan.

In addition, he said, covering the uninsured will reduce costs for those who already carry insurance.

No one should get free health care, Andrews said, but the government should subsidize for some.

For example, a convenience store worker who makes $24,000 a year and doesn't have insurance through work could not afford insurance on their own, Andrews said. But the government could subsidize the cost and require the worker to pay 5 percent of their income, or about $25 a week.

Though Democrats control the debate in Washington, Republicans also want their ideas heard.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., wants to preserve everything that is working with the current private insurance market.

Dent and other moderate Republicans proposed a bill last week that would prevent future government action from interfering with the care of a patient who has private insurance.

"As we engage in this very important and necessary discussion on health care reform in the United States, it is most important that we discuss and we put out legislation that defines the parameters of the debate: That is first and foremost protecting a very personal doctor-patient relationship."

Dent leads a Capitol Hill coalition of moderate Republicans called the Tuesday Group. Among the members is U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd Dist.

LoBiondo has not decided which specific reform proposals he will support, though he considers health care a top priority, spokesman Jason Galanes said.

"He's still reviewing it," Galanes said. "He has an open mind about whatever comes out of the process."

Galanes said the congressman wants legislation to guarantee the doctor-patient relationship, and he will use that standard to judge the proposals that emerge.

Another member of the Tuesday Group is U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, R-7th Dist.

"Most Americans receive their health insurance through their employers," Lance said. "Of those Americans, most are satisfied with their coverage."

Lance said he communicates with his constituents regularly via telephone conference calls, and he hears often from people who don't want the government to touch their private coverage.

"We as a group challenge the Obama administration to support this proposal," Lance said about the legislation introduced last week. "It was designed to be something that could be supported by the entire Congress. We are in the business of trying to work together with our Democratic colleagues."

In addition to the bill introduced last week, Dent said the Tuesday Group members plan to introduce a comprehensive reform proposal, which would include favorable tax treatment for people who wants to purchase private insurance, among other things.

Dent opposes a government-run health care system.

"Many of us do fear that the government option will soon become the only option because it will be very difficult for private health insurance to compete against a government option," Dent said. "Many of us have some reservations about this government option. It could be a backdoor way into a government takeover, a Washington takeover of the health care system.

But, according to others, a public health care option is exactly what the country needs.

Eve Weissman, health care campaign coordinator for New Jersey Citizen Action, said a government-run insurance plan would compete with private insurance companies and drive down costs.

If private companies are the best model, they will prevail, Weissman said. If not, she said, consumers will benefit by having additional insurance options.

"There's no question there should ultimately be nobody in this country, this great and wealthy country, without health insurance," Weissman said. "We absolutely need to have health care for everyone in the United States. We recognize it won't happen overnight. It's a huge system. It's an incredibly flawed system, and 47 million people is a lot of people to insure."

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, which represents 1,300 insurers, said all Americans should be required to carry health insurance — but through private carriers.

That will guarantee coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions, he said. Individuals who can't afford coverage should get assistance from the government.

In addition, Zirkelbach said, the industry needs to be aggressive at bringing down costs. For example, physicians should be rewarded for improving health outcomes, he said.

South Jersey small business owner Melba Bonelli said finding an insurance plan for her eight employees was time consuming. The plan she settled on has a very high deductible, but she said it was the best option she could find.

Bonelli, who owns Dental Choice P.C. in Marlton, has been advocating for a government-run insurance plan, which she hopes would give her a less expensive option to offer her employees.

"It's been difficult trying to get competitive rates because there is no competition," Bonelli said. "That's where I would like to see the public health option bring some competition to the marketplace to drive some of the costs down."

Since the problems in the health care system took decades to develop, Andrews said it will take time to be solved.

"Anybody who promises overnight results is misleading," Andrews said.

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