If You Support Health Care Reform, Call Bill Pascrell
In a speech presenting his final health care reform proposal on March 3, President Obama laid it on the line. It’s time to pass comprehensive reform, he told Congress and the country:
I, therefore, ask leaders in both houses of Congress to finish their work and schedule a vote in the next few weeks. From now until then, I will do everything in my power to make the case for reform. And I urge every American who wants this reform to make their voice heard as well --- every family, every business, every patient, every doctor, every nurse, every physician’s assistant. Make your voice heard.
If you live in New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District (covering much of South Orange and Maplewood) and you want to answer the President’s call, then talk to Representative Bill Pascrell -- who has been running the other way.
When the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts election, supporters of comprehensive health care reform quickly realized that there is just one viable path: have the House pass the Senate bill, which the Senate passed with a 60-vote majority in December, while negotiating to accommodate some House goals through a process known as reconciliation, which allows budget-related legislation to pass the Senate with a bare majority. The President’s health care proposal consists of a package of such fixes, such as limiting the excise tax on expensive plans and improving subsidies for middle class buyers of insurance.
In late January, Rep. Pascrell was having none of this. He told Politico that he is “tired” of the health care reform process and wants to end it. “The people in Massachusetts sent a clear message,” he said. “If we didn’t get it in New Jersey or Virginia, we should’ve gotten it, certainly, Tuesday.” He indicated that he wanted to scrap comprehensive reform and pass whatever scraps of reform can garner a few Republican votes.
Pascrell has since moderated his stance. His aide Mandy Spears told me that Pascrell is “not in a definitely no position” vis-à-vis the President’s plan. He does not like the Senate bill, but he is open to voting for it “depending on what’s in the reconciliation package.” He wants more generous affordability credits for lower- and middle-class families who buy insurance on the exchanges, and a weakening of the excise tax on expensive plans. The President’s proposal calls for precisely those fixes.
That shift is encouraging, but it’s not good enough. Rep. Pascrell needs to recognize that the worst outcome – for the American people and not incidentally for the Democratic party – is not passing a package that looks more like the Senate than the House bill – which are 90% the same in any case. The worst outcome is failing to pass comprehensive reform at all.
Pascrell still doesn’t get this. In a March 2 letter to the President, Pascrell defined health care “reform” as a series of side issues that will do virtually nothing to shrink the ranks of the uninsured, end industry practices such as making coverage unaffordable for those with pre-existing conditions, or control costs. His package includes tort reform, which according to the Congressional Budget Office will have only a marginal effect on health care costs; a patient’s bill of rights, which cannot in itself end the worst industry practices such as jacking up rates for those with preexisting conditions or imposing annual and lifetime coverage caps; and closing the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap, which is not financially viable without the Medicare cost controls written into the comprehensive reform bill. He is afraid to fundamentally reform a broken system.
The President has stressed repeatedly that the core elements of reform are interdependent; they cannot be passed piecemeal. You cannot end insurance industry worst practices without requiring everyone to carry insurance. You cannot sustainably subsidize insurance without the broad array of cost control measures and Medicare reforms embedded in the comprehensive bill. You can’t create viable insurance exchanges without fair standards for minimum coverage set by the Federal government.
It’s true that the package outlined by the President has significant weaknesses. But so did Social Security and Medicare when first passed, as the President pointed out to a group of wavering liberal House members:
Obama argued to the group of progressive members that his health care reform bill should be looked at as the foundation of reform, that can be built on in the future. He asked them to help gather votes for the final health care battle and promised that as soon as the bill was signed into law, he'd continue to push to make it stronger. But in a matter of weeks, he stressed, he could sign into law legislation that would lead to 31 million new people being insured (Huffington Post).
Eighth District voters: if you believe that this country cannot afford once more to fail to reform its broken health care system, please send Representative Pascrell your own “clear message” at http://pascrell.house.gov or 202-225-5751.