U.S. Senator Jon Kyl made a Rim Country appearance before a polite and mostly supportive group of business leaders this week to stump against President Barack Obama’s health care reforms.
Although the veteran Arizona senator said he’d come mostly to listen, he took every opportunity to detail his opposition to almost every element of the health care reform proposals that have passed or are being written by House and Senate committees.
He said the reforms proposed by Democratic lawmakers and President Obama rely on “a huge dose of government regulation and control.”
He said he favors more targeted solutions for specific health care problems in a system he said remains “the best in the world.” He said people should take more responsibility for their own health insurance and pay routine fees out of pocket to hold down costs.
“This approach, I believe, would identify specific programs and won’t risk the rationing of health care,” said Kyl, who sits on a key senate finance committee of three Democrats and three Republicans who are writing one of the health reform proposals.
Kyl took issue with most of the studies and statistics advocates of reform cite in pushing for fundamental change in a complex U.S. health care system that costs more than twice as much per person as in other industrialized nations, although an estimated 47 million Americans have no health insurance. He said at any given time only 18 million Americans don’t have health insurance. The people who make up that number change constantly and during a year’s time the combined number of people who do not have health insurance is 47 million.
Kyl said only about 12 million Americans can’t afford medical coverage or qualify for government insurance at any given moment and the system delivers high quality care that satisfies most people. In fact, he said the key to controlling costs probably lies in requiring people to pay more out of pocket for routine health care, so that patients themselves will have an incentive to keep costs down.
The invitation-only crowd included a who’s who of Rim Country business and political leaders, who offered mostly polite, supportive questions — in contrast to the shouting matches that have developed at some open town hall meetings on the topic elsewhere.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans offered a glowing introduction for Kyl, saying the first piece of legislation Kyl got through Congress after his election in 1995 was a bill that enabled the Payson Unified School District to buy the site of Payson High School from the Forest Service. More recently, Kyl pushed through the Arizona Water Settlement Act, which among other things, secured Payson’s right to 3,000 acre-feet of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Kyl started by expressing his anger at morning headlines saying the U.S. attorney general had decided to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether interrogators for the Central Intelligence Agency broke the law when using techniques like waterboarding, mock executions, threats to kill family members and other harsh tactics in questioning suspected terrorists.
“That really got my blood boiling, since the biggest threat this country faces is terrorism.” He said the people questioned were “the worst of the worst” whose plots “would have killed a lot of people.”
But the rest of the two-hour gathering focused on health care reform.
A few people in the long question-and-answer session following Kyl’s overview talked about their own experiences with being refused individual coverage because they’d at one time suffered things like depression or high blood pressure, but most of the questions seemed to support Kyl’s strong stance against reform.
The various Democratic proposals so far supported by President Obama would require everyone to buy health insurance through an employer, private plan, non-profit cooperative or perhaps a government-run, Medicare-like plan.
Employers would be required to provide coverage for their employees or pay a tax. The reform proposals impose new requirements on health plans that would prevent them from refusing or limiting coverage based on pre-existing conditions and specify a certain level of coverage for all plans. Democrats say proposals would make it easier for a person to buy private insurance or keep their insurance even when changing jobs and help low-income people buy into a health plan.
In response to a question, Kyl said none of the current reform plans would provide coverage for illegal aliens or people who have just obtained citizenship. However, he said a lack of requirements for documentation when signing up for health plans would make it easy for illegal immigrants to get coverage fraudulently.
Kyl suggested one way to bring down the cost of medical care would be to encourage people to treat it more like auto insurance, which protects against catastrophe but doesn’t pay for oil changes, engine work and ongoing repairs and maintenance.
He said also it was important that health insurance companies be allowed to offer their plans across state lines, just like automobile insurers. He said that would stimulate competition.
Moreover, he said pushing through tort reform that limited how much money people could recover in the event of medical malpractice could save $100 to $200 billion annually, since doctors wouldn’t feel the need to order unnecessary tests and procedures for fear of being sued if they hadn’t done enough.
However, he said the lobbyists for lawyers consistently support Democrats, so no tort reform proposals made their way into the health reform package.
Efforts by Republicans to get tort reforms added to various health plans were voted down along party lines, he said.
When one exasperated and supportive questioner asked Kyl “who’s writing these bills,” the senator launched into a critique of the young, workaholic, “very ideological” staff members working for the White House and various congressional committees.
He recalled asking one young staffer to explain a provision of a complicated bill and she started to explain by saying “we want to create a world where ...” Kyl said he then stopped her and said, “That’s the problem right there, you want to create a world where everyone has to do what you think is best.”
He said he was asked on a radio show whether he would promise to sign his family up for the same health care offered by the proposed reform measures. “I said, heck no, I love my family too much.”
The Rev. Charles Proudfoot offered one of the few mildly challenging questions of the session, disputing the notion people could get whatever sort of coverage they want. He noted one family member had been treated for depression and now can’t find any private health plan that would offer coverage.
“Now he cannot buy insurance on his own and in four months when he goes off COBRA, then he is uninsurable,” said Proudfoot. “Why can’t we have universal insurance?”
Kyl said he thought a recent law prevented excluding coverage for people who suffered from mental illness. He said if Proudfoot’s family member is being denied coverage, then that law enacted last year is not working as intended.
He reiterated that individuals should be responsible for providing their own insurance and shopping for insurance and health care wisely to keep costs down.
“If we have to decide how much to pay and it’s coming out of our own pocket, we may want to think about it.”
He said the cost of health care has increased because the value has increased, noting that in 1980 a person had a 65 percent chance of living for five years after suffering a heart attack. Now, the five-year survival rate has risen to 90 percent.
“So would you rather have 1980s health care at 1980s prices?” he asked. He also minimized concerns about the rising cost of health care and challenged the criticism that the percentage of the nation’s wealth consumed by health care can’t continue to rise so quickly. “Who’s to say that 17 percent (of gross domestic product) is too much? Nothing says we have to have a cap on health care if it’s the most important thing to us.”
But another listener challenged the notion that health insurance ought to just pay for major hospitalizations, with individual consumers paying for their own tests and routine care. “Not everyone has the ability to spend that money. We all pay into the system, but it’s not reasonable for me to save $6,000 so I can pay for an MRI, with what I make in a month.” She noted that the current system rations care, based on whether people can afford high-end insurance. Kyl objected to comparing government restrictions that limit procedures with insurance companies. “The big difference is that with insurance, you have chosen your coverage.”
He cited, as an example, the government-provided health care system in Britain, which uses various formulas to determine whether the system will pay for a procedure. That system takes into account the quality and number of years of life gained, so he said the system might approve a treatment for a 26-year-old, but refuse to pay for the same treatment for an 85-year-old.
Near the end of the long session bubbling with questions, Payson Town Councilor Su Connell asked “What’s the rush” to enact reform. “We have to do something about health care, but can’t we have the public sector and the private sector sit down as ladies and gentlemen without all the shouting and name calling?”
Councilor Mike Vogel also objected to the absolute partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans on the subject.
“I have a friend who had a heart attack and now he’s taking his medications every other month, because he can’t afford them. For the life of me, I can’t understand how educated people (in Congress) can’t sit down and do what they were elected to do and get this done. I just wish they would start listening to each other.”