Leader Blues

Friday, July 17, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Tell senators to do right

Sen. Blanche Lincoln has received more national attention than usual since Congress has been waiting for the finance committee that she sits on to produce a health care reform bill.

Representatives presented a bill this week that awaits a vote in the House. The Senateís health committee also passed its version of the bill.

So whatís the holdup in the Senate Finance Committee to produce a bill on which most members will agree? That health care needs to be made more affordable and available is largely undisputed, but how to do it while keeping insurers in business is whatís wrangling Washington.

The finance committeeís job is to figure out how to pay for it all. It looks like for Lincoln, that means making sure insurance companies will continue to have customers.

She ranked second in the Senate for contributions from the health care industry between 2000 and 2008 ó about $6.3 million.

Thatís according to Common Cause, the group that found health care lobbyists have spent $1.4 million a day so far this year.

Lincolnís former chief of staff, Kelly Bingel, is a lobbyist with a firm whose ranks are out in force to influence Congress. The firmís clients include drug and insurance companies, among others.

Bingel was instrumental earlier this year in helping Walmart, and persuading Lincoln and Sen. Mark Pryor to block the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for employees to form unions. Pryor, who may have not accepted health care lobbyist money comparable to Lincoln, has also not committed to protecting consumers from insurance companiesí skyrocketing costs.

If the demise of the Employee Free Choice Act is proof of Lincolnís and Pryorís allegiances, their alignment with lobbyists could very well mean the insurance companies will write the bill that comes out of the Senate.

Some ideas being considered are mandates that would require everyone to have insurance and require employers, both large and small, to provide health benefits. That means individuals and businesses will be required to purchase policies from insurance companies, guaranteeing customers for years to come.

While helping draft this possibly historic piece of legislation, Lincoln should keep in mind that health care isnít just about going to the doctor, itís about keeping jobs in Arkansas. When Jacksonvilleís city-owned hospital, North Metro, decided to lease to a Louisiana company, it was forced to because its costs were unsustainable. Before North Metro went up for sale, a spokeswoman for the hospital blamed charity care and uncollected bills for its debt. She said a public health- care plan was the only way the hospitalís administration could foresee staying afloat.

When bills go unpaid, hospital jobs are lost. Unemployment leads to fewer customers who can spend money at stores and restaurants, fewer home-owners and decreased property and sales tax collected by cities, which has a detrimental impact to infrastructure and public perception. Entrepreneurs donít want to open up shop in a downtrodden city. They also canít afford to do the governmentís job. The Congressional Budget Office said that forcing businesses to purchase insurance coverage for all of its employees, even those who work one day a week, could result in the hiring of fewer workers, according to the New York Times.

When health care is a necessity but is driving individuals, hospitals and businesses into the hole, something must be done. The middle-class and the chronically ill are unable to fill in the budget gaps of mismanaged medical institutions and insurance companies, especially when rising costs fall on the shoulders of young families and people already struggling to make their car and house payments.

Municipalities would benefit in other ways if health care benefits were less burdensome. If citiesí health- care bills were decreased, funds could be redirected to construction of new roads and water systems.

Pulaski County Special School Districtís expenditures on infrastructure could be increased if its employee health-care costs were reduced. Maybe then new schools could be built in Jacksonville.

If Lincoln and Pryor have their way, they will allow the insurance industry to continue to bilk our towns and our schools.

Health careís powerful lobbying has allowed insurance companies to harness the dialogue in the creation of reforms. One thing may unfortunately be guaranteed in the next few years: their bankrolls will continue to soar.

Lincoln and Pryor should take a break from their meetings with lobbyists to find out what voters are already saying about them. Lincolnís Facebook page is full of comments from angry constituents demanding her to help reduce their health-care bills.

Perhaps she should redirect the millions sheís collected from the health-care industry to help such families pay for their medical care.