Bennet excoriates the process, explains yes vote on health bill

Michael Bennet has been mocked on the right and left as the state’s “unelected” senator. He was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter and has never held elected office before. He may be an insider for his history of government employment and long association with wealthy influence-wielders like Phil Anschutz, but he is no career politician. Needless to say, in the era of the Tea Party, this is a good thing. He views the goings on in Washington with welcome freshness during this especially charged first act of the Obama administration, where the politics of health reform have highlighted the ugliest aspects of the legislative sausage-making process.

His speechmaking seems unselfconscious and determinedly not theatrical. The speech he gave Monday explaining his vote for the Senate health care bill will speak to the feelings of Americans from coast to coast. The speech will be the reference point for the heated election campaign he will be waging this year against tough challengers Andrew Romanoff on the left and Jane Norton on the right. The speech was a smart move. The bonus is that what he had to say needed to be said and that he said it well.

Bennet on why he voted yes on an historic bill.

michael bennet

A number of years ago I left a rewarding job in business because I had the chance to lend a hand to my community during a very difficult time in Denver. The economy was slow, and the City was facing a record budget deficit. Our great Mayor John Hickenlooper asked me to come help as his chief of staff. It wasn’t a glamourous job, but it was rewarding, because we got results, not by seeking out what divided the people of Denver who were going through a very rough time, but by reaching out time and time again through what the Mayor called “our alignment of self-interest.”

We fixed the City’s budget, and then I had the chance of a lifetime to become the Superintendent of Public Schools and serve our children and the people who work so hard every day to support them. I came away from that experience believing that much of the Republican and Democratic orthodoxies relating to public education are essentially useless to our children (and maybe worse) and that Washington, as a whole, has absolutely no clue about what is going on in America’s classrooms.

So it is fair to say that I didn’t come to Washington with a partisan axe to grind. As is probably obvious to everyone around here, for good or for ill, I’m not a career politician. I didn’t come here to win political points so that someone else could lose. I’m not interested in that. I’m here, as the father of three little girls, with an abiding concern that we are at risk of being the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity to our kids and our grandkids than our parents and grandparents left us. That prospect is shameful.

Mr. President, we are not the only Americans who have been working weekends and late into the night recently. There are people in small towns and big cities all across America, doing jobs much harder than ours who are taking an extra shift before Christmas so they can afford that extra gift beneath the tree. Americans who are unemployed in this savage economy and still trying to make sure the kids know Santa remembered them.

These same people are reading their papers and watching their televisions wondering what in the world we are doing here in Washington. All they see are talking heads yelling at each other on cable news, needless partisanship paralyzing their government, and even people praying that Senators won’t be able to make votes.

I am not naïve about politics, but I expected more. I will vote for health care reform because it is a step in the right direction. But I will not go home and defend the actions of a Washington that is out-of-touch. A Washington that is more interested in scoring political points, more interested in the 278 health care lobbyists who used to work for Members of Congress, than in it is in what our constituents have to say. A Washington that is more concerned with the millions being spent by big insurance companies, than the thousands of dollars being lost by working families who are struggling to pay for coverage.

Columnists opposed to reform have criticized me for saying that I am willing to lose my seat to enact meaningful health care reform. Now, I am being asked why I didn’t negotiate a special deal with Leadership. In fact, there was a report this morning criticizing me because the National Republican Senatorial Committee was rejoicing that I did not ask for special favors. Only in Washington would someone be attacked for not negotiating a backroom deal. Just because others choose to engage in the same tired Washington rituals, doesn’t mean that I have to.

So I have a message for the columnists, the political professionals, and those back home. I am not happy about the backroom deals. I am not happy that the public option was held hostage by people in our own party. I do not support rewarding delay with special deals. I will let others justify their vote and their tactics.

As for me, I am voting to provide coverage to 840,000 uninsured Coloradans. Voting to extend Medicare for our seniors and provide free preventive care for everyone. Voting to close the prescription drug loophole and provide tax cuts to small business. Voting to make health care more affordable and eliminate exclusions based on pre-existing conditions. Voting for health care reform that is fully paid for.

The people in my state and in our country deserve better than a politics that cares more about lobbyists and talk show hosts, than the people we represent. I am committed to delivering on that, despite what the political experts have to say. And in the end, when the dust settles and the stories focus more on substance than process, I am confident that Coloradans will see it the same way.

I also commit to the people of Colorado and the people of this Chamber that I will do everything I can to make sure this bill really is fully paid for. That is why I introduced an amendment that will ensure that health care will help pay down the deficit by forcing Congress to make adjustments if reform doesn’t meet the cost estimates we have projected.

I urge my colleagues and the leadership in the Senate to see to it that this amendment is included in the conference report. If not, I will fight to get it passed on its own.

I believe so strongly in this because everyone here knows that keeping things the way they are is no longer acceptable.

When I first started in the Senate, 800,000 Coloradans were without health insurance. That number has grown by 40,000 in the months we have debated this bill. On average, 111 Coloradans have lost their health insurance every single day. This number will only get worse if we do nothing. Our state had just spent $600 million in the last year alone on uncompensated care.

Colorado’s working families suffered double digit health cost increases year after year for the last decade. Many families have made terrible sacrifices — no longer investing in their children’s futures, saving for a home, or carrying crushing credit card balances — all to pay for health care.

Small businesses paid 20% more for health insurance than large businesses did just because they are small.

I think back to the Coloradans who shared their stories with me. I remember Bob and Deb Montoya of Pueblo. They were torn between providing health care for their small business employees and keeping their business afloat. Last year, their business paid out $36,000 to cover two families and one employee. He couldn’t afford to give their other twelve employees health care or he would be forced out of business. So he dropped coverage for these twelve employees to keep his doors open.

Hollis Berendt owns a small business in Greeley and told me about her daughter Abby who graduated from Colorado State University in 2004 and found a job in New York with a large company. Her daughter’s company made her wait a year before she was eligible for health insurance and during that time, Abby was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Hollis took out a second mortgage to pay out her daughter’s bills and told me, “This experience brought to light, all too clearly, how close we all are to losing everything due to a health issue.”

I’ve spoken here before about a young boy named Alex Lange. Alex’s parents’ insurance company refused to cover Alex because he was four months old and 17 pounds. They said he had a preexisting condition, at four months, of obesity. Then there was two year old Aislin Bates, whose parent’s insurance company denied her coverage because she was underweight. One child too big, the other too small. Today in America, you have be just right to get insurance.

There was Peggy Robertson of Golden, Colorado who was told she couldn’t receive coverage unless she was sterilized. She came and bravely testified in Washington about the need for reform. Matthew Temme of Castle Rock, who couldn’t receive coverage because his wife was pregnant, even though she was on her own health insurance.

The sad thing is that there is nothing unusual about these stories. None of these people were trying to cheat or game the system. They were trying to gain some peace of mind, some stability in their lives, and instead they wasted weeks of their lives fighting against insurance company bureaucracy and mounting bills.

Mr. President, we have debated health care reform for over a year. Some have been working on these issues for decades. Killing health care reform under the disguise of starting over is not an option. We can’t wait until after the next election. We can’t wait until we’ve fixed the economy or until we’ve come home from Afghanistan to deal with our broken health care system.

Now standing so close to the finish line, it’s completely understandable that some Americans doubt whether this bill will improve their situation. They understand that we cannot live with the current system, but they are also deeply concerned about our capacity to make it worse.

The special interests are using tried and true tactics that have been employed over and over again – across the decades – to prevent reform. Phone calls to scare seniors. Direct mail to scare those already covered. Television ads to scare just about everyone else.

And opponents of reform in this body are trying every delay tactic permitted by the Senate’s rules.

Now, amidst all of this, there is still a reason to hope.

After almost a century of trying, the Senate is very close to finally passing a meaningful health care reform bill. A piece of legislation that, while not perfect, represents a substantial step forward from business as usual.

We have a bill that does three important things — its saves money, it saves lives, and it gives families a fighting chance in their relentless struggle with health insurance companies.

This bill will save money — it reduces the deficit by $130 billion over the 10 years according to the nonpartisan CBO, and is projected to reduce the deficit by ten times that — up to $1.3 trillion — in the second decade. We will save half a trillion dollars by improving the way we deliver services for to our seniors. These savings will prevent Medicare from going broke in 7 years by extending the life of the Medicare trust fund.

This bill will save lives. It will extend health insurance coverage to 31 million Americans who don’t have it today. Over 90% of Americans will have health insurance coverage, the highest percentage in the history of the United States. For Colorado that means over 840,000 people who don’t have insurance will now have access and another 300,000 people who have insurance in the unstable individual market will be able to get affordable coverage through the new health insurance exchange.

The Senate bill makes preventative services like breast cancer and colorectal cancers screenings available without co-payments. Now, mammograms and colonoscopies, which can cost between $150-$200 on average, will be free as well for seniors – half a million seniors in my home state alone, Mr. President. This means catching diseases earlier, promoting wellness, and saving millions of lives.

And for our nation’s working families, this bill will also rein in the worst practices of private insurance companies. They’ll have to commit to covering patients, instead of gouging them for excessive profits and overhead. And starting in 2011, if an insurance company doesn’t give you value for your dollar, they will have to refund you back the difference. They won’t be able to impose arbitrary lifetime limits on consumers that punish you just for getting sick, or deny you insurance because of a preexisting condition. The newest Senate bill does more to contain costs, more to demand accountability and transparency from insurance companies, and more to give consumers a better choice.

For my home state in particular, I am glad that the bill addresses other critical areas.

This reform does more for small business and small business workers than ever before. Small businesses tax credits will begin next year, giving eligible businesses a tax credit for six years to purchase health insurance for their employees. We have expanded the tax credits for small businesses allowing more than 68,000 small businesses in Colorado to buy health insurance.

This bill makes a significant investment in Medicare payments to rural areas. When I first joined the Senate, my first piece of legislation called for a deficit-neutral reserve fund to address the differences in Medicare payments between urban and rural areas. This Senate bill recognizes the geographic differences between rural and urban areas and make sure providers in rural Colorado who provide higher quality at lower costs receive higher Medicare payments.

This bill also delivers on its promise to seniors. This bill doesn’t use a dime of the Medicare trust fund to pay for reform and does not cut guaranteed benefits. That is why on the first day on the health reform debate, I introduced an amendment that would make sure seniors will still see their guaranteed benefits, like hospital stays, and prescription drug coverage, no matter what changes we made in health reform.

It was the most bipartisan piece of legislation we have had this year, with 100 Senators agreeing that health reform would not take away guaranteed Medicare benefits for seniors. For Colorado, that means half a million Medicare beneficiaries who will continue to have their guaranteed benefits protected and preventative services free of charge through health reform.

I am very pleased that Majority Leader Reid included a version of a piece of legislation that I wrote based on the work in Mesa County, Colorado — home of Grand Junction. Currently, one out of every five Medicare patients that’s released from the hospital winds up back in the hospital in the same month they were released. But not in Mesa County — they have reduced the readmission rates at the hospital to about 2 percent, compared to the national average at 20 percent. That’s 12 million patients who aren’t receiving the care they need.

In Mesa County, they have lowered readmissions by creating a transitional model that makes sure when patients leave the hospital, they do so with a coach. That coach helps them go from the emergency room to their primary care physician and their mental health provider, making sure they get the care they need over a period of time. Making sure they don’t forget their prescriptions. And making sure they have the guidance they need to take responsibility for their own care. I am pleased that the Senate bill compensates and reimburses hospitals and providers that set up models like the one in Mesa County that actually saves money.

On another note, I want to thank my fellow freshman. Together, we worked hard to introduce a package of amendments to further contain cost and make our system more efficient.

As I traveled throughout Colorado on the August break, I heard from doctors and nurses who told me, repeatedly, all they wanted to do was work with patients while all the government was doing was making them fill out one form after another. When I came back I was determined to do something to help cut the red tape and bureaucracy for these people so they could spend more time with their patients. That’s why as a part of the freshman package, I introduced an amendment to put an end to multiple forms, confusing codes, and unnecessary paperwork that burden providers. And if health plans don’t follow the rules, they will suffer financial penalties. Our health care workers deserve better — this amendment gives them back time to spend with their patients.

Our freshman package rewards and emphasizes efficiency. One form to fill out, not ten. Less red tape. Fewer bureaucrats. A system that makes sense. That package was endorsed by the Business Roundtable, AFL-CIO, and Consumers Union. Proof that, at least off this floor, there are still people from all different points of view who are willing to work together.

This bill also makes groundbreaking progress in the area of tort reform. This bill includes language I worked on with Senators Baucus, Carper, and Lincoln to create a state grant program for states to develop, implement, and evaluate alternatives to tort litigation for medical malpractice claims. The purpose of these grants is to limit litigation, while preserving access to courts for patients and promoting strategies to reduce medical errors.

Mr. President, I know many in this chamber take issue with one particular part of this bill or another. I have my own issues with the bill. I am one of many who have expressed their strong preference for a public option. But I urge you to consider how much good this bill can do for the American people — those with skyrocketing health care costs, small businesses forced with the impossible choice of helping workers keep their coverage or even just maintaining their business. To have the non-partisan experts, the CBO, validate that in the second decade, we will have cut health care costs by up to $1.3 trillion, and that we will reduce the rise in costs of Medicare from 8% in the last two decades to 6% in the next two decades, all while covering 31 million uninsured Americans is truly groundbreaking.

We know what more time elapsing without fixing this system means for Colorado’s working families and small businesses. It means more double-digit premium increases, less time to fix Medicare before it goes bankrupt in 2017, and more names added to the rolls of the uninsured.

It means another big win for the special interests. More people denied coverage for pre-existing conditions, and more small business employers will have to make impossible decisions about covering their workers or keeping their doors open.

So let’s reject business as usual. Let’s look at the promise of this Senate bill as a whole. Let’s put the pettiness, scare tactics, and obstruction aside. Reform is what’s needed to control costs, give people more choice and provide support for our small businesses. This package will reduce our deficits, and it does so by reforming the way we provide health care.

Mr. President we have much to do. Even before we were in the worst recession since the Great Depression, during the last period of economic recovery, working families’ income actually declined, the first time in the history of the United States. The first time that our economy grew and left the middle class behind. At the same time, in my State of Colorado, and all states across the country, the cost of health insurance rose by 97% and the cost of higher education in my state went up by 50%. Finally, because of the short-term politics practiced here, we now have an annual deficit and long-term debt that is cheating our children and constraining their choices.

We still have a lot to do to live up to the legacy that our parents and grandparents have left us. And it has taken me less than a year to understand that Washington still doesn’t get it. I know we can do better.

And despite so much evidence to the contrary, I believe we will. I believe we will in the end because the national creed that each generation of Americans has fought for and fulfilled — the idea expressed in our Constitution that our responsibility lies not just to ourselves but to our prosperity – is so much more powerful than the trivial politics that animates so many of the charges and countercharges that ricochet around this building.

It is for this reason I urge my colleagues to come together and support this meaningful improvement to our health care system.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.

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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic | 720-432-2128 |

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