Anchorage Daily News: Alaska senators return with opinions of health care reform

They were on opposite sides during the debate leading up to health care reform in Congress and it's the same now that Alaska's two U.S. senators are back in Alaska talking about the result.

Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat who backed the reforms, says the legislation is packed with opportunity for people who didn't have it before to get health care and that most people calling his office now just want to know how it will affect them.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who opposed the legislation, says that she agrees increased access to health care is good. But the new law won't deliver all it promised on that front and, perhaps more significantly, won't bring down costs, she said.

"In terms of our ability to reduce the overall costs of health care, I think this is where we have failed and failed to quite a high degree," Murkowski told reporters Tuesday.

Both senators are in Alaska while Congress is in recess, giving speeches and holding roundtables on various topics. Begich was talking about health care Tuesday evening at a rally. Murkowski didn't have any specific talks on health care scheduled but discussed it with reporters.

Begich said he's not trying to sell the public on the hard-fought law but is explaining the advantages for Alaskans:

Extended coverage for children. No lifetime cap on benefits. Free preventive care. Better drug benefits for seniors. Health insurance for early retirees, for small businesses, for the self-employed.

"Some will campaign on it. They will not be successful," Begich said. No one will want to see any of those benefits taken away, he said.

But Murkowski said many benefits won't be in place by the fall elections, yet people will be already feeling the pinch of higher taxes to pay for the reforms.

She is hearing from an anxious public that people want the law repealed.

"Repealing this is not the answer in my opinion," Murkowski said. "If you just repeal and you do nothing, we will not have addressed health care reform."

Murkowski favors a more surgical approach. For instance, she says the law cuts Medicare by more than one-half trillion dollars through 2019. Her staff provided materials showing that the total includes certain kinds of payments to hospitals, cuts in home health care, and cuts to private health plans known as Medicare Advantage.

According to Begich's office, those private insurers run Medicare in some places for the government but have proven to be expensive, and the law cuts "overpayments." He says the law gives seniors more health care, not less. It ensures free yearly checkups and dramatically improves drug coverage, he said.

Mark Foster, an Anchorage business consultant who has researched the law, noted that the law does not cut Medicare payments to doctors, and that few Alaskans participate in the privately run Medicare Advantage programs.

Health care reform has come to epitomize the bigger concerns some citizens have about government overreaching, Murkowski said.

"I think health care reform is ... kind of the poster child, if you will, of what people view as a government that's just run amok. What are they doing back in Washington getting into every aspect of my life?"

Begich said he agrees with leaders from both major parties calling for restraint and reason.

"It's a piece of legislation. The world didn't end. Let's have rational discussion about what you like or don't like but let's move forward. And I think that's the right approach," Begich said.

Both also said that Congress isn't done yet. "There's a lot of work still to do on health care," Begich said.

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By:  By Lisa Demer. Originally published March 30, 2010
Source: CLOSER: Begich tries to explain benefits in the law for Alaskans