Leader Blues

Friday, March 12, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Rep. Berry’s Showboating

In politics, unlike other realms, you can have it both ways. Arkansas’ members of Congress are masters of the process, or at least they try to be.

U. S. Rep. Marion Berry of Gillett, who is retiring from the House at year’s end, voted for the comprehensive health-insurance reform bill that passed the House of Representatives in November. Apparently, his vote for a bill advocated by President Barack Obama angered some of his big supporters in the Delta, so he announced last week that he would not vote for the nearly identical but slightly more conservative bill from the Senate that the House will act upon next week. That may mollify his friends who don’t want the president to pass any initiative on any subject.

But so that he can say that he is firmly on the side of all those who believe — as he says he does — that the health-insurance system needs drastic overhaul, Berry this week introduced his own health-insurance bill. Berry had no illusions that the House would seriously take up his bill, but he said he could tell his children and grandchildren that he understood the problems and tried to do something about them. That is having it both ways — you’re with the critics and you’re with the advocates.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln showed him the way last month. She voted for the broad Senate health bill, which her committee, Senate Finance, wrote, but after a storm of criticism from Republicans and others influenced by the insurance industry’s media attacks on the legislation, she began to back off. Now she says she won’t vote for the reconciliation process, which is the only way that the legislation passed by both houses can become law. To cover her predicament, she introduced her own little health bill with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine last month and said it would solve most of the problems. Her bill actually would do very little and no one in Congress takes it seriously, but it allows her to duck a vote on the historic legislation while maintaining that she is an ardent champion of health-care reform.

In south Arkansas, U. S. Rep. Mike Ross continues to make the late Sen. Edward Kennedy sound like a wimp on health care by advocating powerful reforms in insurance and health-care delivery. But he is not going to vote for any bill that would actually do something. He is for strong medicine, you see, but his colleagues just can’t come up with anything that quite suits him. He has friends who are for reform and friends who are against reform, and he always stands with his friends.

Berry’s bill is actually worthwhile. Most of its provisions are in the Senate or House bills in either stronger or weaker form. His bill would stop insurance companies from refusing to sell policies to people with pre-existing conditions or stopping coverage when they become chronically ill. It would cap insurance company profits by requiring them to spend 92 percent of the premium income from customers on health care rather than on administration and profits. It would cut the giant subsidy that the taxpayers give the insurance companies for Medicare Advantage plans and reform Medicare payments to hospitals and doctors. The bill that the House will vote on, probably late next week, will do all those things. That is where he got the ideas.

Two initiatives in his bill aren’t in the broad bills passed by the House or Senate because Republicans and conservative Democrats have blocked them. It would allow patients and pharmacies to obtain cheaper drugs from other countries and allow the federal government to negotiate Medicare prescription prices. Both would drive down the obscene cost of drugs. But if conservatives blocked the inclusion of both provisions in the Medicare prescription drug act of 2003 and the current insurance reform bills, they will surely not allow Berry’s bill to become law.

What Berry’s bill would not do is create exchanges where people who cannot afford insurance coverage could shop for affordable insurance and it would not mandate coverage. In other words, his bill would do nothing to provide access to medical care to 31 million American citizens, including a couple hundred thousand in his district.

In spite of his claims, his bill, if it were enacted, would drive up premiums for people with coverage now because the insurance companies would raise premiums to offset having to provide expensive coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and chronic lifetime ailments.

But the congressman said the reason he would not vote for the Senate bill was its slightly more flexible language on abortions than the provisions in the House bill that he supported. But that is a ruse. The Senate bill restricts abortions more than does existing federal law. It would prohibit the use of federal funds to pay for abortion procedures even under private insurance policies if the low-income policyholder got a federal subsidy.

Anyone who uses the abortion provision as a pretext for voting against the bill just doesn’t intend to vote for the bill. If he is so interested in preserving life, he might consider the thousands in his district who die because they did not have reliable health care that they could afford.