Health Care Reform

Delivered on the floor of the United States Senate

Mr. President, the issues before the Senate are sometimes weighty and complex, historic. I don't think there is any greater challenge this Senate has faced in modern times than our current debate over health care. This is such a major part of not only the American economy but of our everyday lives that it is hard to think of another issue we have tackled which will be so far-reaching. The American people understand the need for change when it comes to health care. Even if they have a health insurance policy today they value and trust, they are worried about tomorrow. The cost, the availability, being denied coverage for a preexisting condition, losing a job and losing health insurance, a child who turns age 23 and all of a sudden is on their own in the health insurance market--there is a lot of uncertainty we need to be serious about. When we think about these issues, many times we put them in the context of Washington.

In Washington, the issues are about the people one might see in the corridors. They are lobbyists representing special interest groups who can afford to send people to talk to Senators and Congressmen. They represent doctors and hospitals, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies. They all have an interest in this debate because, quite honestly, it goes to the bottom line--whether or not they will be profitable. They, of course, want to maximize their profits if they can. But the people who are not in the corridors are the ones we ought to be thinking about as well. These are average Americans who got up this morning, and, if they were lucky enough, went to work. They will work hard all day, come home bone weary, trying to keep their family together, and get ready for another day tomorrow. I think of a mother like Karen Gulva in my home State of Illinois. She is a single mom with a 12-year-old boy with asthma. I visited, about 10 years ago, the University of Chicago Children's Hospital. The head physician there, the admitting physician at the hospital in the emergency room, said to me: Senator, what would you guess is the No. 1 diagnosis of kids going into emergency rooms in America? And I said: Trauma? They fall off their bicycles and things like that? He said: No. Asthma. Asthma is the No. 1 reason children are seen at emergency rooms across America. Well, it surprised me because my family has been spared from that problem. I started thinking a lot more about it. I came to the Senate here and started talking to my colleagues. I went to Ted Kennedy--he sat back there in the back row--and I said: I am thinking about an asthma awareness effort. He said: Count me in. My son has asthma. Then I went across the aisle, at the time, and talked to Spencer Abraham, who was a Republican Senator from Michigan. I said: Spencer, I was surprised to learn about this asthma being the No. 1 reason kids go to emergency rooms. He said: I know all about it. I grew up with asthma. Pat Moynihan, who sat in the back row here: Same story. It dawned on me, even though it had not touched my life personally, it touched the lives of many people in this Chamber and a lot of American families. Karen Gulva has one of those families.

The primary care physician for her 12-year-old son has prescribed daily doses of a lot of medications: Singulair, Allegra, and two different kinds of inhalers. Add these medications to the Strattera he is already taking to regulate his ADD, and you can see that access to medication is essential in the day-to-day life of this typical active 12-year-old boy in my home State of Illinois. There is more to Karen's story. Karen has a stable full-time job earning a salary of $31,000 a year plus benefits. She falls right into the range of what we call middle-class working Americans. At first, Karen's health insurance premiums were affordable. They reduced her paycheck by $52.50 twice a month--$105 a month. However, costs for that health care have risen dramatically over the last few years. Karen is now paying over $300 a month for her premiums alone. Remember, she makes $31,000 a year gross. This does not include the $500 deductible or her share of the cost for office visits and prescriptions. The yearly cost of health care for Karen and her son is now so great that it is hard for her to keep up with other payments she has to make--just the basic necessities: food, gas for the car, and car payments. She is barely scraping by. She refinanced her condo twice this year to stay out of credit card debt. She has tried everything to bring down her health care costs. She has looked for other health insurance options in the private market, but because her son has what we call a preexisting condition, in this case asthma, she has been denied coverage. Karen Gulva is not looking for a handout from this government. She just wants some help from the country she supports as a loyal tax-paying American citizen. All she wants is affordable health insurance. All she wants is some peace of mind as a mom that her kid is going to have what he needs to lead a normal life.

That is what the debate is about. It is about the uninsured--50 million people who do not have insurance--but it is also about Karen, a hard-working mom who has watched the cost of health insurance triple in a short period of time and who worries about whether she can keep up with it. I have listened to a lot of debate coming from the other side of the aisle, and I hope I am not misinterpreting it. But it seems for some on the other side of the aisle they do not view this as a matter of urgency. They do not see this as an issue that requires our immediate, full-scale attention. I see it differently. I think this gets to the heart of why we are here in the Senate. We are not here to stand on the floor and make speeches. We are here to pass laws that make life better for America and give us a chance for a stronger Nation with stronger families in the years to come. Sometimes we have to tackle some of the issues that are the hardest. President Obama has told many of us privately and said publicly many times: If health care reform were easy, they would have done it a long time ago. It is not easy. It is not easy because the current expensive system is rewarding people, unfortunately, for the wrong things.

I have referred on the floor before to an article in the New Yorker from June 1 by a doctor, Atul Gawande. It is titled ``The Cost Conundrum.'' Dr. Gawande went to McAllen, TX, to figure out why in the world in that small town the average spent on Medicare recipients was $15,000 a year--one of the highest in the Nation. He could not find a reason. This is not the situation where there is a disease there or elderly people are sicker. What he found out was the doctors in that town were billing everything imaginable. They were throwing in tests and procedures, piling one on top of the other because they get paid more. The more they do, the more they bill, the more they get paid. One of the doctors said: Well, you know, it is defensive medicine. We can get sued. And another doctor said: That is not the case at all. Texas has one of the tightest med mal laws in the Nation. It limits the amount anybody could recover for a medical malpractice lawsuit, and there are not many suits that are filed. No. The bottom line is, these doctors have an incentive to bill more to the Medicare system because they get paid more when that happens.

If you go to a place such as Rochester, MN, and the Mayo Clinic, where the doctors are on salary, and their goal is not to pile up the procedures but to get the patient well, you will find the cost of treating Medicare patients is dramatically less in Rochester, MN, than it is in McAllen, TX. How do you create an incentive in our system for the right outcomes--healthy people with quality care available to them--and reduce the overall cost? Our health care system spends twice as much per person than any other nation on Earth. Our results do not show why that money is being spent. They do not prove that is working to make us a safer, healthier nation. So now the argument on the other side is that we have to be careful because we might end up with a public option; that is, a health insurance plan as an option that Americans can choose that might be government sponsored. I do not think that is wrong. In fact, I think that is healthy. It is important the private health insurance companies who now rule the roost have competition--somebody keeping an eye on them to make sure they treat people fairly. I think a public plan that does not have a profit motive, that does not worry about marketing, and does not have high administrative costs could be that plan, that competitive option that keeps the private health insurance companies honest. Many on the other side have stood up and said: Government health insurance plans are a bad idea. Really? Forty-five million Americans are under Medicare today--elderly, disabled Americans covered by Medicare. I have not heard a single person on the other side of the aisle say: Let's get rid of Medicare. It is a bad idea. And you will not hear that because it is a good idea, and it works. There are another 60 million who are covered by Medicaid, our health insurance for the poor. I have not heard any suggestions from the other side of the aisle of eliminating Medicaid. So 105 million Americans, one-third of our population, are currently insured through a government plan. I think it is a healthy thing. As long as the government plan we are talking about is trying to bring costs down and expand coverage so everybody has the benefit of health insurance, then I think it is a good thing to build into this system. So the debate will continue, as it should, at the highest levels now.

But there is one option we cannot accept, and that is the option of stalemate and the option of failure. I do not know I will ever have another moment in time in my public career to seriously take on the health care reform issue. The last time was 15 years ago under President Clinton. We have to seize this opportunity. We are lucky to have a President who has stated to many of us and many of the leaders in Congress that this is a priority he is willing to fight for. Even at the expense of his political popularity he wants to get this job done. That is the kind of leadership this country needs on an issue that is critically important to every single person, every family, every business, and, frankly, to the economic future of our Nation. I encourage my colleagues: Try to find that common ground, try to bring together a bipartisan approach here, some compromise on both sides that comes up with the best approach. Let's bring in those medical professionals who can help us get to a good place. Let's give peace of mind to Karen Gulva and so many others around America who worry every single day about coverage for their kids and for the people they love.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.