January 10, 2003

Senator Wyden's Remarks at the National Press Club

Washington, DC - In a speech at the National Press Club today, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) shared his vision for health care reform in the 108th Congress and detailed his bipartisan legislation with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the "Health Care that Works for All Americans Act." The Wyden-Hatch bill would launch a national conversation on health care, giving Americans the chance to weigh in on needed reforms and have their recommendations voted on in Congress. Their proposal recently received the joint endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, and the AARP. Following is the prepared text of Wyden's address.The Health Care that Works for All Americans Act of 2003 Remarks at the National Press Club Senator Ron Wyden "Last week at a town hall meeting in Independence, Oregon, I got a glimpse of how impatient Americans are with Washington's inaction and never-ending rhetoric on health care. After a discussion of several national security questions, a fellow interested in health care reform raised his hand and said, "What's homeland security if we're all sick or dead?" Obviously, the issue's not that cut and dried. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I know how important it is to secure the safety of our citizens and win the fight against terrorism. Still, that fellow in Oregon has a point. If health care reform has to wait for world peace it'll never get done. I'm not willing to wait any longer. As I stand here this morning, I believe Congress has the best opportunity it's had in years to enact meaningful health reform. Three factors are combining to improve our prospects: the new Republican Leader has a longstanding interest in health policy; the public is fed up with inaction on issues that should have been dealt with years ago, like prescription drugs; and there is growing evidence that the need for broad reform is urgent. The key, in my view, is for the Senate to move quickly and boldly before health care gets lost in the traditional crush of the legislative calendar. Specifically, I believe the heavy lifting on health care needs to be done in the first six months of the 108th Congress. There are two reasons I feel this way. First, in the last Congress, the 107th, it became evident how tough it is to get action on health issues in the last months of a session right before an election. The Senate tried that in the summer of 2002, right before the August recess, and couldn't get it done. Second, as incredible as it seems, by the fall of this year another presidential campaign will be underway. That, too, will present a host of challenges for the cause of health care reform. You may be in the presence of one of the few United States Senators not running for President or thinking about running for President. The way to begin is to secure, in the next couple of months, the necessary funds for a meaningful prescription drug benefit and significant help for the uninsured in the Senate budget resolution that will come up shortly. I sit on the Senate Budget Committee that will write that resolution. On prescription drugs, Olympia Snowe and I have promoted a bipartisan approach that we believe nails down a role for both the public and private sectors. On the uninsured, I believe that some combination of tax credits for private industry and innovative approaches through Medicaid can make a difference. The solutions are available. I think it is critical that the Senate budget resolution fund them quickly and move the ball forward. I want to emphasize this morning that I believe Congress cannot stop there. It is time for the Congress to get moving on creating a health care system that works for everybody. Medical costs have skyrocketed again. Thousands of small businesses are seeing their health premiums rise 20 percent year after year. Millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured, falling through the cracks because they aren't old enough for Medicare or poor enough for Medicaid. A demographic tsunami of millions of baby boomer retirees will be on our shorelines before we know it. Here's my bottom line: the American health care system needs triage, specifically prescription drug coverage for older people and concrete support for the uninsured. But Congress must go further, and get serious about healing the whole patient as well - which means creating a health care system that works for everybody. Senator Orrin Hatch and I will shortly introduce legislation to do just that. I'm going to take just a few minutes to describe how I believe it can put our health care system on the road to broader reform. Our legislation is called the "Health Care that Works for All Americans Act," and in a recent joint endorsement, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and the AARP announced their support. These are not three groups who naturally flock together, and it is a clear statement that our bill offers a fresh approach that can bring millions of Americans together for reform. The legislation is built on the idea that for the last 57 years, since Harry Truman's proposal got clobbered in 1945, health reform efforts have been cut basically from the same cloth. Without exception, these reform plans are written here in Washington, D.C. After they're proposed, politicians try to find a way to pay for them. Attacks come from all sides, and the prospects for reform die in the bedlam. There's never a chance to engage the public about the tough choices that have to be made to get real reform. Most of the past proposals have barely gotten the attention of the citizenry, let alone won their approval. Hannibal had better luck crossing the Alps than health care reformers have had crossing the Beltway. Senator Hatch and I would make a sharp break with this half-century of tradition by launching health care reform from outside the Beltway. Instead of a top-down prescription for fixing health care, scribbled here in Washington and illegible to the people, our bill contains a clearly engraved invitation to those who use the health care system: take the wheel and drive the effort to reform it. Our legislation has two main components: a chance for the public to state their views in their communities and online on how to create a health care system that works for everybody, and a guarantee that their recommendations will get a vote in the Congress. The bill creates a Citizens' Health Care Working Group that will run the public participation portion of the program. Online, and in town hall meetings across the country, the public will be asked to examine various health care options and choices. They'll have some key questions to answer - like, "What kind of care do you want? What's it going to cost? And who ought to pay for it?" My home state of Oregon has pioneered an approach for involving the public in this way, and I'm convinced it can work for the nation. When the public participation process is complete, the Citizens' Health Care Working Group will take all the information gathered at those meetings and synthesize it in a written report to Congress on what the public thinks should be done. Under our legislation, Congressional committees are then given six months to write a bill that reflects the public's will. If the committees of jurisdiction fail to act within those six months, then any member of the House and any member of the Senate can force a vote on the floor of Congress. If anybody thinks this isn't a big deal, I'd like to point out that in 1993 and 1994, there wasn't a single substantive vote on the floor of either house of Congress on comprehensive health reform. It was all hat and no cattle. This time, the people can know - there will be a vote. The Wyden-Hatch bill spells out various timetables to accomplish all this, and I'll be happy to take your questions as to how those will work. What I want to emphasize is that the bill has a loftier goal, something that's never been tried before. That goal is to let the American people know that with one-seventh of the economy on the line, and with the future of their families and their well-being fundamentally at stake, their voices will be heard first on health care reform - not as an afterthought. Creating a health care system that works for everybody is going to require making tough choices. As we've learned in Oregon, the challenge is, do you make them in the front door through open debate, as the Wyden-Hatch bill does, or do you make them in the back door with doctors and hospitals every day making ethical decisions about what care to give, or how much cost the hospital is willing to absorb before cutting services? I'm convinced that if the Congress gives the public the facts, people will be willing to think hard about a system that literally means life or death to them, and then make the difficult choices that are necessary. My emphasis today is that there's no time to waste. Implementing broad health care reform is not something you are going to get done in a week. The demographic tsunami I've described is going to be on us very quickly. If Congress doesn't pass reform soon, there's no way on the planet this country will be ready for the all the boomers who will need more and improved health care as they age. This legislation offers a workable plan that already has significant national support to move America forward to quality, affordable health care that makes sense for all Americans. This morning my message is that a bipartisan Senate team is going to stay at it so that this reform effort gets to President's desk.