Kodiak Daily Mirror: Murkowski speaks to Kodiak

The crowd numbered 100, and it had more questions about health care than Sen. Lisa Murkowski had time to answer at Monday’s virtual town-hall meeting at the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium.

But in about an hour the senator took questions about a wide number of issues: from perspectives on both sides of the public (health insurance) option, to worries about expanded federal spending, to concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical and health insurance lobbies.

Local interest

One major theme of the meeting was the precedent of Medicare, which along with the Department of Veterans Affairs, gives a picture of the federal government’s health care record.

“Why would we build a new system on the back of a broken system? Why wouldn’t you fix Medicare first? That’s a perfectly legitimate question, and it’s absolutely the responsible thing for us to do” said Murkowski.

One reason the senator opposed a government-run insurance plan is because she believes that Medicare fails Alaska — especially when providing access to doctors. In one example, she cited a 2009 study of 75 Anchorage doctors. The study found that only 13 (17 percent) would accept new Medicare patients.

At the town-hall meeting, Kodiakan Nick Szabo spoke up in defense of Medicare, citing the two successful surgeries that he would not have been able to afford without the government program.

Erin Harrington received applause when she brought another local issue: health insurance for Kodiak’s self-employed.

Murkowski used the opportunity to challenge the traditional link between employment and insurance, and to question a measure in the current legislation that that would require businesses larger than 25 employees.

“In today’s economy, where we’re seeing layoffs, when we’re seeing a lot of movement, there needs to be portability of insurance,” Murkowski said.

Popular demand

Two other questions received applause during the meeting.

Early in the meeting, Stacy Studebaker challenged the role of health care industry lobbyists in health care legislation. She asked Murkowski how much campaign money she has received from insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

The senator acknowledged that there has been considerable lobbying from insurance companies, pharmaceuticals and trial lawyers’

“I’m not going to sit here today and deny that there is a full-court press on this issue, just as we had when we had the energy issue before us,” she said.

According to the nonpartisan research group Center for Cooperative Politics, Murkowski received the 20th largest contribution from health care industries in the U.S. Senate: about $18,000. The two largest recipients of health care funding are Sens. Richard Burr (R, N.C.) and Patty Murray (D, Wash.).

Murkowsi’s largest contributions come from electrical utilities, which contributed more than $165,000 to her campaign fund.

Another question that drew applause challenged the intrusion of health care into the public sector.

Murkowski compared health insurance to car insurance to argue that even if the government requires citizens to carry insurance, some will choose to go without.

“Rather than imposing mandates, we should be reducing costs so that people go out and buy insurance because it’s the responsible thing to do,” she said.

Professional opinion

Two doctors offered their thoughts at the meeting.

Dr. Mark Withrow — whose question was read by the event’s moderator because Withrow was at work — told Murkowski that any health care reform should first eliminate greed, and second maximize quality.

Dr. Paul Zimmer asked the senator if she has considered a single-payer, public health care plan like the one used in Canada.

Murkowski responded with a story about a Canadian who had to wait four years for a knee-repair surgery because the man was 60 years old, and the system only wanted to perform the surgery once.

“I’m not so certain that we want the government to be telling us ... that there is that level of rationing” she said.

In her own words

Murkowski began the meeting by briefly presenting her stance in the current debate.

She supports efforts to ban insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions as well from dropping coverage for patients who become sick. She also supports limiting medical lawsuits in order to limit the practice of defensive medicine by doctors who are worried about being sued.

But she opposes requiring business owners to offer health insurance to their employees, and doubts that the government can expand coverage without enormous costs.

Concerned with costs, Murkowski voted against the current Senate bill when it passed through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in a party-line vote.

“There is much that we can do within our existing system to eliminate the waste fraud and abuse that goes on. And I agree that must be one area that we locate. But to suggest that we might be able to find $900 billion in waste fraud and abuse . . . I think if there’s really that much out there, we would have been working through that diligently prior to this point,” she said.

She presented statistics to show that if the new health care bill costs between $1 and $1.6 trillion (as the Congressional Budget Office predicts) Congress will have run up over $3 trillion in unplanned expenses in the last 19 months. The cost would make up almost a fifth of the U.S. gross domestic product.

The two largest expenditures have been the $787 billion stimulus package passed in Febuary. 2009, and the $787 billion Troubled Asset Relief Fund, which passed in October 2008.

Source: By Sam Friedman. Originally published in the Kodiak Daily Mirror on September 15, 2009