Leader Blues

Sunday, February 21, 2010

EDITORIAL >> How you can help, senator

Sen. Blanche Lincoln spent a tiny bit of her ample campaign war chest Thursday on a country breakfast for some 40 Arkansas legislators in the state-owned apartment building across the street from the state Capitol, where she made an obviously earnest and most plaintive pitch to lawmakers to help her.

If there is any little problem in your districts that her office and the federal government might help resolve please call her, Sen. Lincoln told the lawmakers. Constituency work has become an important function of congressional offices, and diligent attention to constituency problems is rewarded at election time.

U. S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, Mr. Republican in Arkansas, was the best there ever was. He could dislodge a disability check more quickly than any member of Congress. There are stories that Lincoln’s staff is not the best at such mundane stuff.


But we have an idea about how Lincoln could serve her constituents much better than that. She could announce that she was going to use her pivotal position in the Senate to insist that Congress address the single problem that polls show most distresses the people of Arkansas: health care.


Then she should go back to Washington and do it. 


In a poll conducted last month for Talk Business Quarterly, 39 percent of Arkansans listed paying for health care as their greatest financial concern. Nothing else was close. Asked about all concerns, financial or otherwise, health care was second to worries about the general economy.


Why wouldn’t they be worried? Health-insurance premiums are rising far faster than inflation and tens of thousands lose their coverage every year. The increases are certain to become steeper and steeper.


Californians are learning this month about the insurance death spiral, and we will hear about it, too. People who are not covered by employer-sponsored plans and buy individual policies learned that their premiums are going up in some cases by 39 percent even while insurance companies are enjoying record profits.


More and more healthy people are dropping their coverage because of the expense, which means that the insurers are left with sicker people who need more expensive care. So the company raises premiums to cover the medical losses, which means that even more people will drop their coverage. The same spiral affects employer insurance, but it is slower.


It means more and more people fall back on government insurance, Medicaid and veterans medical services. Gov. Beebe is now wrestling with finding ways to cut $400 million a year from the state Medicaid budget because it is growing at an unsustainable rate of nearly 8 percent. Every state faces the same dilemma.

Some may remember that was the reason that President Obama made health-insurance reform the first priority with the support of a vast majority of Americans, and it was the reason that Congress spent the better part of a year putting together plans to address the manifold problems of the health system.


It was an ugly and confusing process, but both houses eventually produced very similar plans that did indeed address the big problems. Nearly everyone would have liked something a little different — more government involvement or less typically — but it was a consensus, which is how democratic institutions always address problems.


Both plans would have protected the coverage of people with private insurance, expanded it to tens of millions of Americans who are without it, install mechanisms to stem the rising costs and reduce the national budget deficits. 


Sen. Lincoln eventually voted for the plan that her committee drafted, but after seeing poll numbers showing that insurance and pharmaceutical company advertising had succeeded in frightening Arkansans about what the bills did, she became apologetic.


Then in full-panic mode she announced that she would join a Republican effort to block the legislation that she had supported from becoming law through the reconciliation process, by which a majority of senators rule.

We think it would be politically advisable for Lincoln, too, not just the right thing to do.  People would like to see their senator stand firm and educate them on what her bill does and why it would help all of them.


Tell seniors that the Republicans and insurance companies are lying and that the bills wouldn’t reduce their Medicare. Sen. Dale Bumpers, whose seat she took, did that for 24 years. Oh, how we miss him.