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July 8th, 2009 Henry Stern, Mark Zusman | Q & A
 

Ron Wyden

Oregon’s senior senator defends his health plan from hits by unions, Obama and other Democrats.

     
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HEALTHY DEBATE: Don’t tell Wyden his healthcare proposal is “half a loaf.”
IMAGE: Kat Miller

When U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden came to our office last week, we saw no evidence he had brought along extra security.

It wouldn’t have been surprising, given the heat the Oregon Democrat has taken from unions and others on the left over his proposal to resolve the healthcare crisis.

Those groups want a public option in any healthcare reform.

But Wyden’s Healthy Americans Act focuses instead on blowing up the link between health insurance and employment. The bill would give workers their health benefits in the form of a pay raise (along with a tax cut for most on that pay increase), making them responsible for going out and buying their own insurance.

Days after our interview, President Obama piled on Wyden’s plan by telling The Oregonian he agreed with 90 percent of Wyden’s thinking but that his former Senate colleague’s proposal is too “radical” for him to support. Wyden was undaunted, telling WW over the phone, “Whenever the president of the United States says he agrees with 90 percent of what you’re doing, I say with a smile, ‘Mr. President, that sounds pretty good. Let’s go get the other 10 percent.’”

Here’s the expanded defense Wyden gave his health proposal when we interviewed him in person.

WW: Is the real healthcare battle over a public option, or is that just the public perception?

Sen. Ron Wyden: For the last 60 years people have been talking about the role of government and health care, and that’s certainly symbolized by the public option issue. But I think the two issues that really drive the discussion in terms of getting this done is, first, affordability. You’ve got to make this affordable for individuals, for families and for taxpayers. Certainly, Washington is reeling from the sticker shock of when the finance bill came in at $1.6 trillion and the Kennedy bill had huge, huge numbers. Before I left Washington, a number of senators just came up to me and said, “I want to talk to you about the Healthy Americans Act because we remember it’s budget-neutral.” The other part is, you’ve got to change the incentives driving everybody’s behavior.

Are you open to a public option?

I’m open to looking at anything that contains costs and particularly changes the incentives that drive everybody’s behavior. The law for selling private health insurance in America today is inhumane. It’s about taking healthy people and sending sick people to government programs more fragile than they are. And we outlawed that. There will be no more cherry-picking—you have to take all comers, you can’t discriminate against people with preexisting illnesses…. The Congressional Budget Office has scored one bill as budget-neutral, and that’s ours. That’s because we changed the incentives that drive the system. Eighty-five percent of the businesses that offer coverage give people no choice. So we give people choices, and we give them financial incentives to shop for health care. The law we have has everybody getting choices and coverage like members of Congress. Having said what I think is the best model, the argument for the public option is that the insurance companies are doing outrageous things and the only thing that will work is to have this public option. I and others think there are additional models: the Congresspersons-type package; Germany, for example, has very good care for less money. They don’t have a public option, so there are a variety of ways to go about doing it. The other part of this story is, I’ve got conservative Republicans on a universal coverage bill, hard-nosed insurance reforms with the most generous subsidies, up to 400 percent of poverty [level], and guaranteed lifetime portability. I think that’s pretty progressive.

I realize this is hard for a Democratic senator to say, but isn’t it your belief that the public option is unnecessary to accomplish your goal?

The Healthy Americans Act has several public options. We say that if in that area, private plans don’t exist, you can have a public option. We say that states can also get a waiver to offer a public option.

Given states’ budget problems, how realistic is it to say they have the alternative of offering a public option?

They would be looking at primarily holding down the administrative costs and consumer protections. There are a variety of ways to go about using the state waiver provision in our legislation. I don’t think most states would use the state waiver provision. I think Oregon will at least explore it.

What do you make of progressives beating you up over your proposal?

Anybody who wants to reform the health system is going to see vested interests of all sorts come after them. And the fact of the matter is, in this health debate, most people say they want change, except where it affects them. That’s why I expect, before this is done, every single money interest will be coming after stuff I’m working for. And that tells me I’m trying to do the right thing. The insurance people started attacking the healthcare bill right out of the box. We’ve had attacks from a whole host of groups.

You’re being attacked less by the insurance industry than you are by unions. And it sounds like what you want to say is, “You know what, folks, trying to put the insurance industry out of business in this country is just not doable; we’d like to, but it ain’t going to happen, so get over that.”

It’s not my opinion; my opinion is based on years of town meetings looking for what works rather than to just kind of fit in to the convenient political boxes. We have stuff in this bill that progressives have fought for for decades and decades. And we still have nine Democratic sponsors and five Republican sponsors. If somebody says it’s half a loaf to produce a plan that says all Americans will have coverage at least as good as their member of Congress, and do it for the amount of money we’re spending today, I sure as heck wouldn’t consider that half a loaf.

What’s your response when critics point to your donations from the insurance industry and conclude you’re “in their pocket”?

Come to one of my town meetings. When you tell people we’ve been able to show that all Americans, other than people on Medicare or military, get coverage like their Congresspeople, folks start cheering. My bill actually gives 35 million working-class people a tax cut.

Given The New York Times’ recent poll finding that 72 percent of Americans favor a public health option, why does it matter if Republicans aren’t there on a public health option if a majority of voters are?

I want to get a big vote for the right approach. That’s what we’ve been working on, not a big vote for something that doesn’t do the job and leaves medical costs continually gobbling up everything in sight. I think we’ve got the right approach on the merits.

Let’s change channels and talk about your work on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Are there any efforts on the Hill to hold the Bush administration accountable for the Iraq war?

The committee on intelligence, we’re [in] part going through a review now. And I think setting the record [about] what happened there is absolutely critical. With respect to Iraq, you had 77 senators vote for a policy that I thought was a huge mistake. If we could have had a majority of senators vote with me, and vote against this, and the administration went and did it anyway, then there would be arguments to go back and hold people accountable. But Congress voted to go; it was a great mistake.

So you’re saying no prosecution or a truth commission because a large majority of Congress gave the Bush administration the OK on the war?

Certainly, there are things I want further inquiry into with respect to Iraq—particularly contractors. I think some outrageous stuff took place with respect to using private contractors. I’ll put it this way: The most important inquiry now, in this era, I wouldn’t rule out a truth commission that involves interrogation and torture.

In 2005, you visited Guantánamo and said the detention center should stay open. What’s your take now?

We’ve learned a lot more; I think I want it closed. The president wants it closed. There is all this debate about where all the people would go. We have supermax facilities, and these are not people who will be strolling the streets of Gresham or Coos Bay. They will be in a supermax facility.

A couple political questions: First, are you definitely running for re-election next year?

Yeah.

OK. Mayor Adams: As a Portland resident, would you sign the recall petition?

One, I’ve made it clear that I think his behavior is 100 percent wrong. Two, with respect to legal process, I don’t practice criminal law, but the attorney general said that he didn’t find enough facts to proceed to go ahead to trial. And No. 3, I will look at whatever is presented. But I generally don’t sign petitions of one sort or another. Let me see what is offered on July 7.

Clear the air on whether or not you and some other federal officials will appear with Mayor Adams in public settings.

With this much hurt in the economy, both in Portland and in the state, I will work with everybody to try to turn it around. We will see about future events.


FACT: Wyden’s top five contribution sources this election cycle are Nike ($39,200), Blue Cross/Blue Shield ($22,400), Banfield Pet Hospital ($15,700), Pinnacle Healthcare ($13,800) and M Financial Group ($12,750) according to opensecrets.org.
 
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