Do Dems Want Health-Care Reform?

Some hedging in the halls of Congress

Health care reform won’t happen no matter how forcefully the candidates push unless Congress goes along. While the Democratic contenders have offered a vision that could bring insurance coverage to more Americans, rumblings on Capitol Hill indicate that not all the Dems are on board—at least not the biggies who are in a position to influence.

It’s wise to remember that the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee, helped put the kibosh on the Clintons’ reform package in 1994 when he declared “there is no health care crisis in this country.” Now from The Hill, a publication surely in the know about what members of Congress think, comes a story that casts doubt on any significant reform—which, by the way, needs the blessing of the Senate Finance Committee.

Another New York senator, Charles Schumer, who also sits on the committee, told The Hill:

Health care I feel strongly about, but I am not sure that we’re ready for a major national health care plan.

Schumer added that he would focus “on prevention above all and cost cutting until we can get a national health care plan.”

Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and also a member of Senate Finance, had this to say:

We all know there is not enough money to do all this stuff. What they (the candidates) are doing is…laying out their ambitions.

And from former Louisiana senator John Breaux, a conservative, pro-business Democrat, came this pronouncement:

You don’t want to rush and do something and do it incorrectly.

Now, I have covered enough legislative issues in my career to know that statements like these are really code for, “Let’s not do much to upset the status quo,” and signal doubts without giving the impression the speaker is a total naysayer or an obstructionist jerk. It is the opening barrage that softens up the ground for the special interests to punch through and kill or substantially gut whatever reform legislation happens to be on the table. And it is precisely the sort of red flag the press should watch for and explain what’s behind these statements. The bloggers weighed in, but didn’t really draw out the significance of the messages that the good senators were sending. Ezra Klein over at The American Prospect opined that Rockefeller’s comment “scans oddly” because money could be found to pay for health care and noted that most of the statements made in The Hill story “are pretty banal restatements of viewpoints we already knew.” Schumer’s involvement here, he said “is basically what you’d expect.” Maybe Klein and other policy wonks know what to expect, but Americans who rely on the mainstream press for health care news don’t.

Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic wrote that the senators’ comments were “pretty discouraging stuff.” Duh! Cohn told his fans that he had just called Andrew Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who said that the senators “showed an incredible lack of appreciation for what most Americans are confronting every day in this health care system.” Indeed they have, and that is precisely the story that bloggers and mainstream reporters need to tell: that influential senators may be ignoring the health care needs of their constituents.

To move this story along, I called the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, an advocacy group that knows well the tragedies produced by the health care system—people who have become disabled through no fault of their own. Like the thirty-nine-year old woman who suddenly developed a paralysis in both legs and needs twenty-four-hour home care. She didn’t qualify for Medicaid, which would have paid for that care, and other public options wouldn’t work. The Center’s files also tell of a freelance artist who makes $2,000 a month—too little to buy commercial insurance and too much to qualify for public programs that could pay the $130,000 in hospital bills he ran up treating his life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia. It would be good to know how Schumer’s plan for more prevention and cost cutting would help them stay alive and why these constituents are “not ready” for reform.

In Rockefeller’s home state of West Virginia, I found a fine series by Eric Eyre, a staff writer at the Charleston Gazette, which shows what people are up against when it comes to getting dental care and the consequences of not getting it: serious illness and infections, for example. The state has one of the lowest percentages of adults who see a dentist. If Rockefeller believes that health reform will cost too much, then the next story should be how Congress can slice and dice the federal budget and reprioritize it to free up money and help these constituents. The media need to show why reform can’t wait for the many people represented by members of the august Senate Finance Committee.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.