Ketchikan Daily News: Senator talks health care

Health care dominated a discussion Friday between Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and members of the Ketchikan Young Professionals Network.

The lunchtime conversation started with a brief statement from Murkowski, who then asked what issues concerned the approximately 20 audience members.

The first question was about ensuring quality health care for all the veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Murkowski agreed that the number of veterans is growing, and at 18 percent, Alaska has the highest per-capita population of veterans. She said resources in Alaska to serve those veterans are limited. The Veterans Administration makes the problem worse, she said, when it requires veterans to travel from, for example, North Pole to a VA center in Seattle for cancer treatment, while perfectly good treatment is available in Fairbanks, though not VA-affiliated.

Murkowski said the nation has underestimated the rising costs of health care for veterans, which worries her.

That health care topic quickly was followed by another, when an audience member asked why older citizens who are happy with their health coverage and can afford it are not allowed to opt out of Medicare, the federal health program for Americans 65 and older.

Murkowski said that is a problem, especially in Alaska, where a limited number of health care providers accept Medicare. She said if people are satisfied with the coverage they already have, they should be able to keep it and not sign up for Medicare unless it becomes necessary.

"We need to be able to utilize the system when we need it," she said. "It needs to be flexible."

She added that Medicare is on the "verge of bankruptcy," another reason the system needs to be fixed.

An audience member asked what the senator's ideas were to fix health care, stating it was "ridiculous" that there are so many people in America who can't afford basic medical care.

Murkowski agreed it was a problem that millions of Americans are without health insurance. She said the best solution was to reduce the cost of health care. She suggested streamlined billing, rather than the complicated billing that is standard procedure in most hospitals; reducing the number of tests physicians order, often only to avoid potential lawsuits; and incentives for insurance companies to better cover procedures that help prevent illness.

Finding a way to get all Americans covered by health insurance would be extremely expensive, Murkowski said, adding that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., need to work hard on spending less. She said it's a problem caused and shared by Republicans and Democrats.

"We are spending at an absolutely unprecedented level," she said, and it needs to stop.

Murkowski also talked briefly about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing large campaign contributions from corporations and unions. In response to a question from the audience, she said she is in favor of free speech, and would not want limits placed on that right.

However, she said, she is concerned about the level of corporate involvement in the election process.

"I think there's already far, far, far too much focus on the money raised for elections," she said.

Murkowski said the solution could be to require immediate and complete disclosure of campaign contributions.

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Source: By Leila Kheiry. Originally published by the Ketchikan Daily News on January 31, 2010