Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

EDITORIAL >> We know who Ross speaks for

Mike Ross is not our congressman, for which we thank the lawmakers who draw the congressional district boundaries. Voters around here expect straight talk from their representatives and they usually get it. Congressman Ross talks straight when it suits him, which is not too often in the health-care debate, but apparently it is often enough for the voters of south Arkansas.

Ross attended a forum on health care Monday provided by the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and paid for by a health insurance company, Delta Dental. Ross used the venue to defend himself against the accusations that his principal interest in the health-care labors in the House of Representatives as the point man for the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition was to take care of the insurance companies and major providers. He used his leverage to force major changes in the House health-care bill that would mean higher premiums on the working poor of his district and increased payments to hospitals and other providers.

One of his objectives was to see to it that health legislation would not place tough cost controls on hospitals and many doctors. He said that if the legislation insured millions more people, it would dump more people into Arkansas hospitals, where low reimbursement rates based on Medicare would force the closure of “our rural hospitals.” It is our guess that nearly all Arkansas hospitals would dearly love to get more patients, even at Medicare and Medicaid rates. Medicare will pay a rural Arkansas hospital from $27,000 to $30,000 to install a heart defibrillator and from $12,228 to $13,783 for a knee replacement. Ross says they are going broke being paid so little.

Ross said he was not influenced by the insurance companies and other providers. He has gotten very little campaign money from insurance companies, not a great deal from the medical industry and none from the big pharmaceutical makers, he said.

The Center for Responsible Politics in Arkansas has a different story. He has taken $38,000 from the insurance industry (but only $4,500 from the leading insurer in Arkansas, he points out) and a grand total of $992,000 from the health industry. How much has he received from the 100,000 or so uninsured workers in his district? There are no figures, but not much we would guess. They have no voice in this debate and it shows.

Specifically, Ross said the drug industry had no hold on him. By stunning coincidence, the online magazine Politico and ProPublica, a nonprofit news group, published an article Tuesday reporting on the mammoth profit Ross made from the sale of his little family drugstore in the town of Prescott to the retail giant USA Drugs in 2007. USA paid Ross $420,000 for the little store (several times its appraised value) and between $500,000 and $1 million for its assets and paid his wife between $100,000 and $250,000 not to open a competing store in the hamlet. Total compensation: between $1 million and $1.67 million. For good measure, two weeks after the sale, USA’s owner tossed $2,300 into Ross’ campaign kitty.

Although he voted a bill out of his committee that contained an optional public insurance plan for people who cannot buy private policies or have been denied for pre-existing conditions or canceled for chronic sickness, Ross has said he would see to it that the bill that passed the House did not have the government plan in it. He said the people in his district made it clear to him that they do not want the government insuring anyone’s medical care.

They don’t? Then right away he must introduce legislation repealing Medicare, Medicaid and veterans health care, all government insurance programs, or at least allowing his congressional district to opt out of the government programs.

Altogether, those government insurance programs already cover more than a third of all his constituents who have insured health care. Medicaid alone, which covers children, some adults and institutionalized care for the indigent elderly, pays about $3.5 billion a year for the care of Arkansans. In his own little county of Nevada, Medicaid last year spent nearly $19 million on the care of Ross’ neighbors. Medicare spends roughly another $3.5 billion for Arkansans’ care.

Get rid of them all. Now that would be straight talk. He couldn’t set foot in the Fourth District or the state of Arkansas again, but he would be true to his principles.