WASHINGTON ? It was far from the usual exchange between a member of Congress and a constituent.
During a mega-sized conference call with more than 6,000 of his constituents last month, Fourth Congressional District Rep. Mike Ross had to assure one nervous woman, “I'll never vote for any bill to kill old people.”
Ross's constituent, like many other senior Americans, had been scared by reports that the main House bill for achieving universal health care coverage called for “death panels” or “death squads” that would guide the elderly toward filling out a living will and do-not-resuscitate orders before deciding if their lives justified the expenditure of more health care resources.
Although the bill calls for nothing of the sort ? it called only for Medicare to provide counseling to the elderly about “end of life” matters such as living wills ? the exchange highlighted how fear and suspicion have, for the second time in 20 years, stymied the debate over changing the nation's health care system and threaten to derail it.
Ross and other Democrats in the Arkansas delegation say they want health care reform as badly as President Obama, but when they came home this month for their August recess they found themselves caught in the crosshairs of a backlash. It was a backlash from constituents who voiced fears that the president and Democratic congressional leaders were pushing a health plan that would greatly expand the federal government's powers over some of their most personal matters. The uproar had been stirred by conservative interest groups, statements from some prominent Republicans and conservative talk radio.
Ross and six other Blue Dog Democrats kept the health bill blocked in the House Energy and Commerce Committee until the end of July, when Chairman Henry Waxman gave in to their demands.
“I'm the guy who put the brakes on this,” Ross has bragged to his constituents, while also telling them he would not vote for any bill that allows federal funding of abortions or provides health care to illegal aliens.
He also told a woman in McGehee, “The last thing I'm going to do is let the government get between you and your doctor.” An insurance company? That's apparently OK.
It is a situation laced with irony. For if health care reform ? especially making health insurance coverage more available to the working poor ? should be an easy sell to anybody, it ought to be to Arkansans. After all, Arkansas measures far worse than most states when it comes to availability of health insurance.
According to figures released in July by the staff of Energy and Commerce, Arkansas's Fourth Congressional District, which covers southern and parts of eastern Arkansas, would get the following benefits under the main House bill: 124,000 previously uninsured individuals would gain access to “high-quality, affordable” coverage; up to 12,500 small businesses would receive tax credits to help them provide coverage for workers; an estimated 1,500 families could escape bankruptcy each year; providers would get covered for $155 million of previously uncompensated care, and up to 6,700 seniors that fall in Medicare's “doughnut hole” for prescriptions would be covered.
The staff based its figures on information from Gallup health surveys, the Census Bureau, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services and the House Committee on Ways and Means.
The first strike against Arkansas is that 40 percent of its 2.8 million population lives in the countryside. Rural areas traditionally get the short end of the stick when it comes to health care availability and reimbursement, various federal government and university studies have showed.