The provider community last week caught a glimmer of hope from a prime-time presidential speech that the health reform effort would jolt forward despite lawmakers on Capitol Hill sounding a less than certain tone.
Holding on to hope
Providers optimistic after Obama's address
Industry representatives for hospitals and physicians said that President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union Address on Jan. 27 may have been the call to arms Democrats need to get some sort of healthcare reform passed, if not sooner, then later in the year.
Richard Umbdenstock, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, praised Obama’s speech, saying it struck the right balance between the urgent need for reform as well as the political realities that have helped to bog the effort down. “I think it’s the right approach,” he said, referring to Obama’s call for Congress to continue its work on the healthcare front. Umbdenstock, who as head of the nation’s largest hospital lobby helped shape some of the policies found in both the Senate and the House’s bills, called the reform effort “important work,” adding, “there is a real need to continue.”
Similarly, the American Medical Association, another big player in the effort, also lauded the president’s speech. “The pressures on our healthcare system have not abated,” AMA President J. James Rohack said in a written statement. “People are losing their health coverage along with their jobs and the rising cost of premiums is putting pressure on employers and families.
But on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress have been in a healthcare holding pattern, the tone ranged from cautious to dramatic. “I’ve always thought that there could be some break on healthcare at some point this year, but I don’t know what that is yet,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “I think it’s very possible that healthcare is just at a stalemate and you just can’t solve it this year.”
Meantime, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) sounded a direr note. “I think it’s on life support, unfortunately,” she said. “But it still has a pulse, and I think the president’s suggestion about a cooling-off period—a short cooling off period—might be good to give us a chance to reorganize and re-order.”
Both comments were made the day after the State of the Union address and reflect a growing wariness among Democrats who are trying to breathe new life into an effort that seems stuck.
Obama’s speech followed an extraordinary couple of weeks that have seen Democrats lose a crucial Senate seat and a resulting hold put on legislation that seemed a lock to pass just a month ago. “As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed,” Obama said, urging lawmakers to not abandon the effort. “Not now. Not when we are so close.”
It was one of the president’s most impassioned pleas to the fractious parties that occupy the Capitol and his most visible one yet since Scott Brown, a Republican lawmaker from Massachusetts, won a seat in the Senate that had been held for decades by Democrats.
Obama again pressed his case for expanding health insurance, noting that the number of uninsured is on the rise. “I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber,” he said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Democrats’ leadership said Obama’s speech could do the trick. “I think he gave it an important boost at a time when some people were beginning to question whether we would finish the job on healthcare reform,” Van Hollen said. Other House members sounded equally positive. “I think he was unequivocal in why we’re doing this,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said. “I think the reaffirmation was very, very important.”
Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, an advocacy group, said that the president landed a one-two punch that tied together the policies and politics behind the reform effort. “I think that if this doesn’t make unambiguously clear that we’re going to get this across the finish line, I don’t know what else can do it,” he said.
Later in the week, key Senate leaders met to help find a way to plot a workable course to pass some form of legislation this year.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that a range of options were under discussion, including one that would allow a tag-along bill to the much broader package to be passed with a simple majority vote in the Senate. “Healthcare reform is alive and well,” he said. “It just took a rest for about a week.” Harkin said that the meeting, which also included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), explored ways “reconciliation” could be employed.
Under the reconciliation process, legislation that’s more limited in scope than what the Senate and House passed last year could pass the Senate with only 51 votes rather than the usual 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who also attended the meeting, said there is a “total commitment to getting healthcare reform.” “I’m not saying it’s going to be done tomorrow,” he said. “But I’m also saying it’s going to be done before spring, summer. We’re moving expeditiously.”
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