Stark talks health care at town hall
California Congressman Pete Stark faced an overflow crowd at his monthly town hall meeting Saturday at Alameda City Hall, with a litany of questions about the health care reform plan President Barack Obama is touting and the reform bill he and others are attempting to push through Congress.
Most of the 200 people who packed council chambers Saturday said they want Stark to back a “public option,” which essentially would be a government-sponsored plan for Americans who can’t get their care from a private insurer and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. The “public option” plan would be part of be new “exchange” in which it would compete with private insurers for customers.
“The reform needs to be serious. It must have a public option,” said Tasha Keeble, a public school teacher. She said she can’t afford the health care plan her school district offers so she pays for her own PPO plan, but that her coverage is minimal and that she’s afraid she won’t be covered if she gets sick.
Stark said that while he hopes to “get through with the bill we wrote,” he may be willing to compromise – particularly with conservative Democrats – in order to get something passed. Some of the options under consideration include a “trigger” that would put a public plan in place if private insurers don’t lower their rates or if costs savings aren’t realized in five years and allowing private insurers to bid for the chance to run the plan.
“As long as I can assure you that more than 95 percent of Americans have a health plan in five years, I can’t say I would vote against (a bill without a public option),” he said.
Stark, who is the head of the House Ways and Means health care subcommittee and a co-author of the H.R. 3200 health care reform bill, said he hopes to have a bill pass the House of Representatives in October. He said that 26,000 people in his district lack health insurance.
But that assurance wasn’t enough for some participants in the town hall meeting, who shouted at Stark for engaging in what they called “political horse trading” over health care. One man yelled that today’s efforts to fix the system are “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
A group of doctors from Asian Health Services in Oakland presented Stark with petitions bearing 3,000 signatures from constituents who want a public option included in the final health care bill. They said the system as it exists now costs people more money than health care in other industrialized nations, and that we have much less to show for it.
Some town hall participants offered their horror stories about getting sick and dealing with insurers. Alyssa Eisenberg of Emeryville, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000, said that she struggles with keeping a full-time job, in part because she has been forced to take many days off to haggle with her insurance company over its denials of her claims. She said she has never lost an appeal.
“This mean tone some people have (on this issue) has become acceptable. I think people like you need to say that’s wrong,” Eisenberg said. “Don’t make me feel like I have to apologize because I’m sick.”
Opponents of the reform plan, who were a distinct minority at the meeting – and with whom Stark had a few testy exchanges – raised fears that have dominated much of the debate over the plan – that it will drive up the federal deficit and slash quality. And some asked if the plan would pay for care for undocumented immigrants or abortions.
One woman said her son-in-law’s father, who lives in Canada, was unable to get the care he needed for cancer when he needed it. She said she doesn’t want the government to run health care.
Canada’s health care system is a single-payer system run by the government.
Stark said the plan would not include money to cover illegal immigrants or pay for abortions, though he said that under current law, anyone can purchase health insurance and that hospitals are obliged to help anyone who walks into their emergency rooms. He said that federal law prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother, and that his bill doesn’t change this.
“Don’t go home thinking you’re going to be paying taxes to subsidize illegal people. That’s not going to happen,” Stark said.
Another opponent, Richard Clark, questioned Stark’s assertion that the reform plan would pay for itself. He cited statistics from the Congressional Budget Office that said the plan could cost more than $1 trillion over 10 years.
The non-partisan budget office offered preliminary estimates in July saying the plan would cost $1.042 trillion over 10 years and that it would result in a deficit of $239 billion through 2019. But it said the estimates were not based on specific bill language.
The Congressional Budget Office said Thursday that they don’t expect the cost of a “public option” health plan to increase the government’s health care spending, though they said the government could see costs if the premiums it charges under the plan don’t fully cover the cost of its subscribers’ care.
They said provisions the Senate is considering adding to the House bill that would expand eligibility for Medicaid, the public health care program for the poor, could cost more than $1 trillion over 10 years.
Stark said the cost of the overall reform package – which President Obama pegged at $900 billion over 10 years in his speech to Congress last Wednesday – would be covered by shrinking annual Medicare rate increases, eliminating waste and abuse in the current Medicare and Medicaid systems and increasing taxes for the wealthy.
In addition to creating a new insurance marketplace for America’s 45 million uninsured, President Obama says his plan would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions and from dropping people’s coverage when they are sick, and cap out-of-pocket costs for medical care. It would require many employers to cover their employees and also would require people who can afford it to buy coverage.
After the hearing, Stark spoke to the 50 people who weren’t able to get into the town hall, who waited on the steps of City Hall to chat with him.