Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pingree has hope for insurance reform

individual health insurance

More than once in recent months, as the debate swirls around how best to reform the nation's health care system, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has been asked, "So, what do you think the Senate is going to do?"

Her stock response: "You know, I'm in the House."

Defensive? Maybe a little.

Still, with all eyes on what role Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins may (or may not) play in the final forging of a health reform package, Maine's 1st District congresswoman hasn't exactly been wallowing in headlines these days.

So, lest we forget that there are two sides to the U.S. Capitol, here's one: "Pingree urges Senate to get moving."

"I'm just afraid that the more we put it off without a deadline, Jan. 1 becomes March 1 becomes we're on our summer recess -- and then we could never come to an agreement," Pingree said last week. By now, she added, "we really know what the major issues are."

Starting, of course, with the "public option." Declared dead on arrival only a few months ago, it's back -- both in the House bill and, with an opt-out for individual states attached, in the Senate bill now being hammered out by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

And while Snowe and Collins promise they won't vote for a government-run program aimed at keeping private insurance rates affordable, Pingree can't envision supporting final legislation without one.

To Pingree, it's a no-brainer: Currently, she notes, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield accounts for 78 percent of Maine's insurance market.

Meanwhile, Anthem is suing state Insurance Superintendent Mila Kofman over the break-even, 10.9-percent rate increase she approved earlier this year for the company's 12,000 individual insurance policies. Anthem wants an 18 percent increase, which would guarantee a 3 percent profit on those policies.

"If we don't have a public option and we continue what we have in Maine, where one company owns 78 percent of the market, I don't see how you make it affordable," Pingree said. "And I'm going to feel kind of guilty saying to people, 'OK, I just signed onto a bill that requires everybody to be in the system -- but I have no way of controlling costs and you're still at the mercy of the insurance companies.' That's what I worry about."

There's no question Pingree has support for her position: Upon returning to Portland from Washington, D.C., last weekend, she was greeted by a group of supporters holding signs that said "Thank You" for supporting the House bill.

And in a poll of 401 Mainers last month, Pan Atlantic Strategic Marketing Services asked, "Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan -- something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get -- that would compete with private health insurance plans?"

Just over 57 percent of the respondents said they would.

Hence, Pingree said, "I feel comfortable that my constituency sees this the way I do."

But what about those who rail against the public option as the end of democracy as we know it?

"We get plenty of complaints from people who say the public option is socialism and don't let the commies take over America," Pingree said. "But you can kind of tell that tends to be a little bit more (talk radio host) Glenn Beck-driven."

That said, the days leading up to the House's 220-215 vote in favor of its health bill was an education of sorts for Pingree on the perils of the political curve ball. She voted against the amendment by fellow Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan banning coverage of abortion by private policies that receive federal tax credits, but still voted for the final bill after the amendment prevailed.

(Maine 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud, on the other hand, voted for both the amendment and the final bill, which he called "a good step forward.")

"If you asked me two weeks ago, I'd have said I'm never voting for a bill (that prohibits private insurance plans from covering abortion)," Pingree said. "And in the end I voted for final passage -- even though I voted no on the amendment."

So, might the same thing happen if the legislation that comes out of a House-Senate conference contains no public option? What if Snowe's so-called "trigger" -- in which a government-run plan kicks in only after private insurers fail to meet affordability benchmarks -- emerges as the ultimate compromise?

"It will depend on what the total bill looks like," Pingree said. "If there was a trigger option, I would need to know it was so tight that it really would force immediate behavior changes by the insurance companies that would happen rapidly. It couldn't be just the hypothetical, 'Hey, if you don't behave we're going to slap your wrists down the road, so be nice guys.'"

But the important thing right now, Pingree said, is for the Senate to pick up the pace and put a final bill on the table. The longer that takes, she said, the easier it will be for the insurance lobby and other special interests to launch another barrage of "myths and lies and untruths" that flooded the airwaves during the congressional recess in August.

"The big picture is that we have to get everybody into the health care system," Pingree said. "Because if you don't have good, preventative care and everybody doesn't get some form of basic insurance, you can't keep people healthier, you can't bring down costs. It just doesn't work."