Senator Baucus Presses for Healthcare Reform

     WASHINGTON (CN) - Montana's Democractic Senator Max Baucus pressed the case for universal health care during a congressional hearing Tuesday, saying that while the United States spends double what other countries pay for healthcare, the nation remains "the only developed country without health coverage for all of its citizens."
      A report by the Urban Institute, highlighted during the hearing, found that 22,000 uninsured adults die every year because they lack access to care. The current economic crisis has added urgency to the issue of healthcare coverage, an issue that formed a central plank of President Barack Obama's election campaign.
     "For every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate," Baucus said, "the number of uninsured Americans increases by 1.1 million."
     Republican legislators reacted against the idea of universal healthcare, saying the United States would have to pay Swedish tax rates to pay such luxury. Representatives of the medical insurance industry reflected the republican arguments, saying doctors might not serve under a national system.
     Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee and will have a key role in what is expected to be a bitter, political fight over healthcare reform. He emphasized the current insecurity in healthcare coverage in saying, "Eighty-seven million people, one in three Americans, went without health insurance at some point between 2007 and 2008. Fourteen thousand people lose their health insurance every day."
      Participants in the roundtable discussion noted that the way the healthcare system is now set up means that every new uninsured patient comes a bigger burden on those who remain insured. Hospitals and providers left footing the bill pass the costs onto their paying clients. It is estimated that this year, each insured person will pay $410 toward the uninsured.
     Those speaking at the hearing included economists and representatives of health insurers and small businesses.
     Before they spoke, Baucus set the tone by asking whether anyone on the panel disagreed that the individual health coverage market needs reform.
     "No. OK, that's established," he said.
     Six protesters then, one-by-one, called for a single-payer system.
     "You said everything would be on the table. Single payer is not on the table. You can't exclude what the majority of doctors and patients want!" the first protester shouted before she was removed.
     As she left, a protesting doctor stood up to repeat her message.
     "We need more police," Baucus joked.
     A single-payer system typically pays all medical bills from one government fund. Benefits of a single-payer fund are generally lower administration costs because of the simplicity of working under one system, and strong leverage in negotiating prescription prices and doctors' fees.
     Sandy Rosenbaum, chair of the Department of Health Policy of George Washington School of Medicine and Law, argued in favor of a single-payer system. She added that any new insurance policy should eliminate health status ratings, and exclusions based on pre-conditions to "level the playing field."
     Republican legislators objected.
     "Who's going to pay for that? In Sweden and the United Kingdom, where we've got single payer, we have a tax rate of 60 percent or higher," said Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican.
     A federal plan would not pay as much as we pay today under the privatized system, answered Len Nicholas, director of the Health Policy Program of the New American Foundation.
     Senator Roberts countered that a single payer system would scare away doctors. He told the story of his knee operation two weeks ago. "I awakened to six doctors looking over me," Roberts said. "They wanted to know about the single-payer plan. The conclusion was, `If this happens, we're gone'." 
     "Who's gonna do that knee operation? I don't see anybody here that could do it," Roberts joked.
     Representing one of the nation's largest health insurers, Scott Serota, president of Blue Cross, supported the Republican legislator's position. He argued that if the government pays providers like it does with Medicaid and Medicare, access to doctors will suffer.
     Senator Jim Bunning worried that a government plan would dismantle the employer based system. The employer based system sustains $500 billion in coverage a year, which is 50 percent of the coverage in the nation, said the Kentucky Republican.
     Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican of Utah, argued that a broad government health system would harm American companies by increasing taxes. "The U.S. already has the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world," he said, "after Japan."
     Demonstrating the broad political base of those in favor of reform, John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, disagreed with Hatch's argument. He said the current cost burden of the employer-based system is unsustainable for businesses that compete on the global market and suggested that a new government system could relieve that burden.
     The meeting was the second of three roundtables to discuss comprehensive health care. The third roundtable will deal with financing such a plan.