Senator Calls Health Care Bill 'Historic Mistake'

Senate Democrats praised the health care bill passed early Thursday morning as a Christmas Eve gift to the nation, but every Republican in the chamber voted against it. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called the bill a "historic mistake" that he predicts will increase premiums and taxes, cut Medicare and lay an undue burden on the states. Host Scott Simon speaks with Alexander about the bill

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Senate Democrats praised the health-care bill passed early Thursday morning as a Christmas Eve gift to the nation. But every Republican in the chamber voted against it. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called the bill an historic mistake, and he predicted it will increase premiums and taxes, cut Medicare, and lay an undue burden on the states.

Senator Alexander joins us on the phone. Good morning, Senator. Thanks for being with us.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And you just heard our Juan Williams say that if the bill survives largely the same after Senate/House reconciliation, it'll mean that 94 percent of the American people will have health-care insurance. Now, why do you consider that a historic mistake?

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, one, because it's fundamentally not reform. It expands the system we've already got. And second, it increases health-care spending, which is our biggest problem because-health care spending in our country is about to bankrupt us, both as a country and as individuals.

SIMON: Now, you know, Democrats point out that when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House in 2003, there was an expansion of Medicare that added billions to the federal deficit, and now your party seems to be railing about the cost of this health-care plan.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, that's true. I mean, they have a point there. Many of them voted for it; I voted for that. It was about one-sixth the cost of this. That's $350 or $400 billion over 10 years for prescription drug benefits. When fully implemented, this is $2.5 trillion over 10 years.

But the problem is, we know more than we did then, and what we know is that we spend 17 percent of our gross domestic product on health care. It's going up to 22 percent, and this means, according to the government actuary, that it'll go up even more. And we should be going the other direction. We should be thinking of ways to reduce the cost of health care for Americans who buy it.

SIMON: You know, Republicans have been cast as grouches in this holiday season and naysayers, without a certifiable idea in the other direction to help Americans who need health care. Do you have that idea?

Sen. ALEXANDER: I do, and we said it every day on the Senate floor. The difference is that we don't think that we ought to try to fix the entire system at once. It's 16 percent of our economy. We think we ought to focus on the single goal - reducing cost - and take steps towards that goal.

For example, allowing people to buy insurance across state lines, that cuts costs; reducing junk lawsuits against doctors, that does. We offered a plan to allow small businesses to pool their resources so they could buy insurance at a cheaper cost. The Congressional Budget Office said it would, it would save the government money, and it would allow employees to pay less premiums. But the Democrats blocked it.

We don't do comprehensive well in the Senate when we take on everything at once. And I think that when people find out about the tax increases, the premium increases, the Medicare cuts, the sweetheart deals, they're not going to like this bill, and it's going to increase our costs and not reform our health care.

SIMON: At the same time, Senator - and I say this to someone who represents a great number of horse areas in this country - hasn't that horse left the stable? I mean, your ideas are interesting, but this bill's about to be signed, isn't it?

Sen. ALEXANDER: No, nope, you're wrong. It passed the Senate with no votes to spare. It passed the House with two or three votes to spare. Congressmen and senators had basically been locked up like prisoners for 25 days. You know, it was 60 Democrats in one room making deals and encouraging each other, not talking to Republicans, not going home. Now, we're all home.

And we have to come back in January, and the House has to pass it again; the Senate has to pass it again. We could get on the right track, which would avoid the Medicare cuts, the tax cuts and the increasing costs, and start reducing costs. And we've got ways to do that.

SIMON: Well, Senator, thank you very much for being with us on this holiday weekend. I do thank you for making the time for us and...

Sen. ALEXANDER: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: ...a good holiday to you and your family.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Same to you.

SIMON: Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

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