Leader Blues

Friday, July 31, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Payoffs taint Rep. Ross

What a memorable two weeks it has been for U. S. Rep. Mike Ross, the formerly obscure congressman from the district just south of us. As the point man for a band of so-called “conservative” Democrats who were fighting the health-reform plan pushed by the president and his party, Ross forced the leadership to dilute the legislation to satisfy the congressional Blue Dogs, the insurance industry and segments of the health-care industry. He led the TV newscasts and the front pages across the country.

(Ross voted for the health care bill that passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee late Friday night.)

Ross’ 650,000 constituents must be proud of their suddenly famous delegate — unless they pay close attention to exactly what he’s doing. Marion Berry, the First District congressman, whom we tend to trust a little further on these matters, is a part of the Blue Dog Coalition, but he hasn’t been heard from seriously on health reform, at least not lately.

The Blue Dogs had said their major concern was that the plan to extend health insurance to nearly everyone and stabilize skyrocketing health-care costs would be too costly and drive up the federal budget deficit, although President Obama had said he would not support and would in fact veto a bill that the Congressional Budget Office determined would enlarge the deficit over the long term.

So what kind of magic did Ross and his three Blue Dog colleagues on the Energy Committee work this week? Well, they changed the bill to force the public insurance plan to pay much higher fees to health-care providers than was the original plan, which tied fee payments to Medicare reimbursement rates. Ross thinks Medicare is too stingy and should pay hospitals and doctors about 20 percent more than they are. So much for bringing down the cost of medical care and insurance.

The largest share of people in Ross’ south Arkansas district who do not have insurance now are families with incomes so small they can’t afford to buy insurance on the market and who aren’t eligible for Medicaid, the government health program for the very poor. Ross’ solution is to raise the cost of insurance they would have to pay for the obligatory insurance required in the bill by cutting back on their subsidy. That is a savings to the government, all right, but a big obstacle to low-income workers and their families.

The Blue Dogs also don’t like the modest income taxes that would be imposed on people reporting net incomes of more than $350,000 a year to help pay for universal insurance. These taxpayers, by the way, are paying the lowest federal income tax rate since the First World War, except for the period 1925-1929 and 1988-1992, when the top marginal rate fell below 30 percent, and they still would be lower if the little tax becomes law.

Ross and his mongrel confederates wanted the public insurance plan to negotiate higher fees for hospitals, doctors, medical equipment suppliers and the drug makers than are paid by Medicare because that way the insurance industry would not be at a disadvantage in competing with the government-sponsored plan. Aetna, Wellpoint, Blue Cross, United, Kaiser and the other companies could not compete with the government plan for the millions of new insurance buyers and their current customers unless the government plan was forced to pay much higher fees, approximately those negotiated between the carriers and the medical industry.

So it was not the beleaguered taxpayers or the people struggling with medical costs and rising insurance premiums that the Blue Dogs were concerned about, but the industry. That is an irrational stance for a representative of the people, but Paul Barton, a fine free-lance journalist who formerly covered Washington for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, supplied some clues yesterday about why it is so.

Ross has received nearly $1 million in contributions from the health-care sector, including health insurance executives and their PACS, in his short tenure in Congress. Five days after Ross announced last month the Blue Dogs’ ultimatum on the health bill, he was guest of honor at a health-care industry reception, one of seven fundraisers for Ross by health companies and their lobbyists in the past year. Three of his top five campaign contributors are the political committees of health-care companies.

Ross’ seat on the key committee that writes health-care legislation makes him an attractive beneficiary of industry largess.

There obviously is little risk in the investment. They are rarely disappointed in the congressman’s vote regardless of the actual effect on the people of his district.

A colorful U. S. senator from Arizona, Henry Fountain Ashurst, explained once how it worked. “When I have to choose between voting for the people or the special interests,” he said, “I always stick with the special interests. They remember. The people forget.”