Tuesday, July 07, 2009

TOP STORY >> Senators see a major shift in reforming health care

Leader senior staff writer

With about 500,000 Arkansans uninsured, Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both Democrats, say the time has come for health-care reform to ensure meaningful, efficient and affordable care for all Arkansans and Americans.

President Barack Obama has made health care reform the centerpiece of his ambitious agenda and 10-year costs have been estimated at $1.3 trillion, maybe more.

Obama said it could be paid for from savings created by implementing the more efficient system.

Lincoln said the most important considerations would be paying for the reform, making sure everyone is covered and that it is effective and efficient.

Lincoln said people happy with their health plans and their doctors would not have to change.

She said she hoped a bipartisan bill can be passed by late fall.

“We’re shifting from a whole different culture in health care,” Lincoln said Tuesday. “For 50 years we’ve been waiting until we are the sickest to (treat and) reimburse care.”

Lincoln said the new model should reimburse wellness and efficient disease management.

“People need to take care of themselves before the most costly treatment,” she said. “Health care reform should stress quality, affordability and sustainability,” including a government-run option, Lincoln said.

“We have to create stable health insurance coverage for everyone. We don’t want them to be ignored or denied (coverage) for pre-existing conditions.”

“It is very clear to me that the status quo is not working,” said Pryor. “I have heard too many horror stories from Arkansans with and without health insurance.

“The Senate continues to piece together a healthcare reform bill, and I am withholding judgment until the committee process is complete,” he said.

Pryor said the essential elements of health care reform are that it should reduce costs for families, businesses and government. It should protect an individual’s choice of doctors and insurance plans; and it should assure affordable, quality healthcare for every Arkansan.

Lincoln said that while the problem may be too big to address all at once, it is nonetheless important to provide a bill that is very comprehensive.

Lincoln serves on the Senate Finance Committee, one of two committees trying to formulate a healthcare bill. The other is the Senate Health Committee.

“We want to make sure that all have coverage that’s meaningful and the right price,” Lincoln said.

She said insurance must be not only available to all, but it must be portable, so a policyholder can take it from job to job. The risk needs to be weighted not against individuals, particularly with preexisting conditions, but against larger pools.

She says a government-option insurer would help ensure that no one is left behind.

Lincoln said there is a place in the plans for nonprofit cooperatives or groups, maybe backed by the government.

She said the government-option plans would charge premiums to sustain themselves and could be orchestrated and run by the government, much as the Postal Service does.

“I think that doing nothing is not an option. The economy is in the ditch,” Lincoln said. “Nearly one-fifth of the economy is being spent on health care. We’re only 19th in the world on efficiencies and outcome. The path we are on is unsustainable.”

“Every Arkansan should have access to quality health care, no matter where he or she lives,” Pryor said, “but without immediate relief, many small hospitals in the nation are at serious risk of closure, job loss or reductions in patient services, with rural families suffering the consequences.”

Pryor said that’s why solutions to preserve health-care facilities that serve rural communities should be part of the broader effort to improve the quality and access of health care for all Americans.

“As a first step, I have introduced legislation that helps Arkansas’ rural health care providers and the families who use them.

The Critical Access Flexibility Act of 2009 will give states the flexibility needed to protect local hospitals that serve rural communities. My bill will help more hospitals in Arkansas become designated as Critical Access Hospitals (CAH), which are hospitals certified to receive a higher reimbursement rate from Medicare. These funds are intended to improve financial performance and thereby retain vital services and jobs and attract economic development.

“Across Arkansas, rural health care providers are struggling to make ends meet in these challenging economic times.

Reducing the financial strain they are experiencing will help keep emergency room doors open, and that is an essential ingredient for a healthier state and nation,” Pryor said.

Pryor says he supports tax credits to help employers obtain health insurance for their employees and tax credits for individuals who purchase coverage on their own.

“I also believe that Congress needs to make health care more accessible to rural families and help rural health care providers cope with rising costs and the difficulties of providing services in sparsely populated areas,” he said.

“Americans will continue to pay more for their drugs than any other people in the entire world unless Congress and the administration allow the safe importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other industrialized countries,” Pryor said.

“Arkansans pay 33-88 percent more for their drugs than our neighbors in Canada.”

“The Medicare trust fund is about to dry up,” Lincoln said. “We must do the best job to get everyone covered.”

Lincoln said she thinks at least a few Republicans will vote for the final bill when it comes to the floor.

“Businesses know they are spending too much, American families know they are spending too much. This is a good opportunity to do it right now. I hope it’s bipartisan and I hope to have something done by late fall.”