Rep. Lee: Health Bill Not Perfect, But A Good Start

The House is expected to vote on the final legislation of Obama's health care bill this week, with a Senate vote following not long after. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, tells host Michel Martin that while the bill isn't perfect, she is supporting it because it will help cover many uninsured Americans, namely in communities of color, which have historically been under-covered. If passed, she says this initiative would be a "foundation" for improving American health care.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear from our money coach Alvin Hall in a few minutes.

But first, the House expects to vote on the final version of a health-care overhaul bill this week, with a Senate vote to follow. President Obama has been traveling the country to drum up support. Here he is in Ohio yesterday.

President BARACK OBAMA: We hear a lot of people in Washington talking about politics, talking about what this means in November, talking about the poll numbers for Democrats and Republicans. We need courage...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: Did you hear what somebody just said? That's what we need.

MARTIN: And on top of all that, the president also submitted a new education plan this week while also talking up plans to reduce unemployment. With all this going on, we decided to check in with two high-profile and vocal members of Congress to talk about these issues. They both met with the president at various times last week.

In a moment, we'll hear from congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. But first, we go to congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. Thank you so much for joining us.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): Thank you.

MARTIN: Does the president have the votes, or does the House leadership have the votes to advance this health-care bill?

Rep. LEE: I think they're getting closer. I don't believe the votes are there as we speak, but it's a tough call. It's tough for many members for a variety of reasons. But I think that the president is doing the right thing by using the bully pulpit to talk about why it's important to the 47 million uninsured. And I know for a fact that our leadership is working very hard to try to convince members that this bill deserves a vote as the first step towards health-care reform.

MARTIN: Well, much of the energy that we hear in terms of winning over votes seems to be on the other side of the ideological continuum, if you want to call it that. I mean, what we hear a lot about is the House leadership's effort to win over pro-life Democrats, like Bart Stupak, who say that they're not going to vote for the bill because it's not strong enough on abortion.

Rep. LEE: Yes, that's true. I think those of us who wanted a public option fought for a public option, wanted single payer as a state option, wanted to see a national exchange and/or an expansion of Medicare, recognize that this may not be the best bill, but it's a foundation for the next step.

We met with the president last week, and he talked about the fact that this is a first step. And we are convinced that once this bill has passed, at least the 31 million people will be insured. And we can move forward to address some of the other outstanding issues. But this is a big deal. And we've worked together to try to make this a better bill.

When you look at the health disparity provisions that address communities of color, they're fairly strong. We're still working to complete those provisions. But, you know, health - diseases and health disparities historically have been very huge in communities of color. So, we've worked to try to address many of those problems in this health bill.

MARTIN: Well, that was going to be my next question - which is, why is this bill worthy of your support? You, among other members of the caucus and the Progressive Caucus, have been pushing hard for the so-called public option that would allow the government to create a plan similar to the one that members of Congress participate in, that people who are uninsured could have access to. That doesn't seem to be part of this final bill. So why is it worthy of your support?

Rep. LEE: Well, let me say, we are very disappointed that it's not part of this package. And it's down to votes. You know, if we knew that the votes were there in the Senate, I mean, we've been working very hard, and I'm very pleased to see more Senators now coming on board. I'm convinced that if the votes were there in the Senate for the public option, we would have a public option.

But we have many good provisions in this bill that provides for the beginning of a health-care system that reduces costs, that holds insurance companies accountable, and that makes insurance affordable for everyone - including, also, subsidies for low-income individuals who don't have a job and who also deserve to be covered.

But I'm telling you, it is very hard to understand why the public option is not in the bill because it saves money, and it's the best way to ensure competition among insurance companies. And I think the Senate really did not do us justice by not putting that public option in the Senate bill.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, congresswoman, I wanted to ask you about a hearing that you're planning to hold tomorrow to address the questions of the chronically unemployed. Can you give us a preview of what kind of testimony you expect to hear? And are you going to be putting forward specific plans to help this group of people?

Rep. LEE: We've been putting forth specific plans. And this is a five-week job campaign to try to help mobilize the country, to focus on jobs and the economy. We've been putting forth specific plans for the last year.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, and before we let you go, and you've been really generous with your time, you and members of the caucus met with the president last week. Does he have the political will to support some of these measures that you think are so important?

Rep. LEE: Absolutely. We had a very lengthy, candid, substantive conversation with the president. He was committed to the summer youth jobs program. He understood it. He gets it. He said: I want to work with you to get that. He was committed to the workforce training, pre-apprenticeship, apprenticeship training initiative. He said he wants to work with us to get that. He supports direct job creations, direct investments and infrastructure.

So, there's general agreement with the White House and the Congressional Black Caucus on moving this forward. And the president has committed to do this.

MARTIN: Barbara Lee is a Democrat from California. She chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. She joined us by phone from her office. Congresswoman, we thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rep. LEE: Okay, thank you.

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