published Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Corker stresses need for "common sense" in reform


by Emily Bregel

For all the scrutiny of health reform bills already voted upon in Congress, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said legislation from the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate Health Committee will likely end up "in the trash can."

"I think both of the bills that have come out are really, truly going in the trash can immediately," the senator, R-Tenn., said Tuesday at a meeting with Times Free Press editors and reporters. "I think really the Senate Finance Committee is the only place left (in which) common sense may occur."

In the editorial board meeting, Tennessee's junior senator emphasized his commitment to a bipartisan health care reform plan. He said true reform requires incremental changes and lots of input from those who work in the health care delivery system.

"You don't get 100 guys like me to change the delivery system in 60 days. That's just not what you do," Sen. Corker said. "Health care is a serious business that has a lot of technical applications. You have to work through pilots and see what happens."

Sen. Corker was incredulous that the Obama administration proposes to cut billions from Medicare to help fund health care reform.

"I hate to be cynical. ... I do not feel that the president has had his feet on the ground firmly as it relates to health care," he said.

President Obama has said that the Medicare trims would not reduce benefits for senior citizens.

Payments would be cut to hospitals and providers, as well as private insurers that administer Medicare Advantage plans, he has said. Those plans cost taxpayers on average of 14 percent more than traditional Medicare programs, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission's most recent estimates.

Though he said he's "caught grief" from his fellow Republicans, Sen. Corker said that he supports the administration's goal of cutting payments to Medicare Advantage plans.

Sen. Corker said he still hopes Congress will pass some kind of health care legislation that "does no harm" by October, so long as lawmakers are willing to focus on areas where there is bipartisan support.

One such proposal is the idea of insurance exchanges, set up by the government but offering private insurance plans, Sen. Corker said. People could be enrolled automatically in their choice of plan, ranging from basic major medial coverage to more comprehensive plans. The coverage could be funded by tax credits, he said.

"I think we may get back to this idea this fall," Sen. Corker said. "This is government acting as an organizer, not a provider" of health insurance.

The insurance exchange proposal is a "useful step in the right direction," Chattanooga oncologist B.W. Ruffner, president-elect of the Tennessee Medical Association, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

By allowing people to shop instead of limiting their options to employee-sponsored insurance, "that by itself will bring the competitive element into health insurance that we don't have now," he said.

Dr. Ruffner said he is nevertheless "sympathetic" to the idea of a public insurance option because it would put pressure on private insurers to control patients' costs.

Sen. Corker decried talk of using a budget reconciliation process to pass health care reform. Reconciliation would allow Democrats to pass a health care bill with a simple majority, instead of 60 votes, meaning they wouldn't need Republican support.

Sen. Corker said using reconciliation would be "like a circular firing squad," undermining the long-term feasibility of reform.

"I can't imagine a more disastrous thing to do," he said.

Tony Garr, executive director of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign in Nashville, said he's confident that the legislative process and the Obama administration can bring about a feasible reform plan.

"It will produce something that's viable, it will produce something that has a sound basis and something that's deficit-neutral," he said. "I feel very confident it's going to happen and I think Sen. Corker has played a constructive role."

about Emily Bregel...

Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...

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