Rim Country representative Ann Kirkpatrick, a proudly dissident Democrat on many issues pushed by the House leadership, edged closer to supporting President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan after listening to his speech to Congress on Wednesday.
“I liked the president’s speech — I thought he really reached across the aisle. I was happy to hear him say that two of the primary principles are choice and competition — that’s exactly the take-away that I got from my town halls in the district. Also, I’m happy he’s willing to consider tort reform and portability — those also came out of the town halls. He was reaching across the aisle for good ideas.”
Kirkpatrick has refused to take a position on the slew of health care reform proposals, four of which have made it out of key congressional committees. But she has frequently voted against Democratic proposals, including the stimulus bill and the cap-and-trade energy bill designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The freshman lawmaker spent much of August criss-crossing the First Congressional District, a vast sprawl larger than some states, that stretches from the Navajo Reservation to Casa Grande. She held a one-on-one forum in Payson that came under criticism for not taking public questions. She shut down a similar forum in Holbrook when the waiting crowd grew unruly. Subsequent telephone town halls and several conventional town halls went more smoothly.
She said most voters she’d talked to expressed concerns about protecting Medicare, improving health care for veterans, providing medical insurance for children and preventing insurance companies from refusing to cover “pre-existing” conditions.
“I’m much closer (to supporting a reform bill) conceptually. I still want to see the final bill and read it.”
She said the current system has to change. “Insurance has just become unaffordable for the middle working class. I got an e-mail from a man who had been on AHCCCS (the state/federal program for the poor). Then he got a job, and his health insurance is 75 percent of his paycheck. We hear stories like that all the time. Many folks are paying close to or more than they do for their mortgage.”
Studies show that the U.S. spends three to five times as much per person on health care compared to most other industrialized nations, all of which have some form of universal coverage. Most people in countries with universal coverage see the doctor more often, but may wait longer for elective procedures than do Americans with insurance. An estimated 47 million Americans have no health care coverage for some portion of the year. On many measures of public and individual health, such as life expectancy, childhood immunization and infant death rates, the United States lags behind other industrialized nations.
“I think health care reform is connected to our economic recovery,” said Kirkpatrick. “We’re paying more than any other industrialized country and yet we’re not any healthier — the current system is not sustainable.”
Kirkpatrick hailed the president’s willingness to consider tort reform to reduce the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors. Republicans have pushed for such legal reforms, claiming that the Democrats have not included those measures in health reform bills proposed so far in deference to the trial lawyers association. She noted doctors had told her they often practice expensive “defensive medicine,” which means ordering unnecessary tests and treatments to avoid potential lawsuits.
She noted that the average household in her district makes $32,000 annually and the president has promised to not raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 to pay for the health care reforms.
“The principle that’s important to me is making health care affordable for the middle class and for small businesses,” said Kirkpatrick.
She also expressed concern about the catcalls, boos and shouts from some Republican lawmakers during the president’s speech — including one South Carolina congressman who cried out “You lie,” when Obama said the bill would bar illegal immigrants from receiving benefits.
“I thought that was inappropriate,” said Kirkpatrick. “I was sitting right next to some of my Republican colleagues and they also thought it was inappropriate.”
She said the most comprehensive health care reform bill in Congress expressly bars undocumented immigrants from obtaining any health care benefits. She said she hoped the debate was now moving past the spurious sideshows like the non-existent “death panels” to the substantial and real issues.
Finally, she said she was now “leaning toward” supporting a bill that would include a government health plan to compete with private plans, particularly in areas where patients had only limited choices between private plans.
“I’m leaning more toward it more than I was initially, simply because I think it’s one of the mechanisms that can retain competition in the system — and also provide patient choice.”
“I thought it was a good speech,” she said in summary. “I thought he took on the issues that I’ve been hearing about, which shows me he’s also listening to the American people. The key is the American people taking personal responsibility for their health — government is not going to fix this problem, it’s going to be the American people.”