Democrats Show Little Progress on Health Care

When Democrats took over Congress in January, they were going to expand health insurance for poor children, authorize the government to negotiate prescription drug prices, and more. But it's almost 2008, and the Democrats have accomplished none of those things.

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2008 is also an election year for Congress, so it may be a time of judgment for the Democrats who formed the majority. When Democrats took over the start of this year, they had big plans for health care. They we're going to expand health insurance for poor kids, and give the government authority to negotiate prescription drug prices, and boost federal funding for embryonic stem cell research among other things. So far Democrats have accomplished none of those things.

NPR's Julie Rovner looks at what went wrong.

JULIE ROVNER: Way back in January, the new Democratic majority in the House voted to change to a key element to the Republican Medicare prescription drug law and require the federal government to negotiate with drug makers for lower prices for Medicare patients. It marked the first of the series of policy frustrations. President Bush never even got a chance to follow through on his veto threat for the Medicare drug price negotiation bill - the Senate failed to pass it. He did get to veto the next major health bill to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. That came in June.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical, and it is not the only option before us.

ROVNER: Democrats didn't even try to override that veto but they did expect to be able to win a major expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program known as SCHIP. It was to be the first step toward tackling the problem of 47 million Americans without health insurance.

Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel heads the House Democratic Caucus.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois; Chairman, Democratic Caucus): The country wanted its political leadership to start tackling the health care crisis. We proposed something that there was a consensus on, which we thought everybody agreed was the right to do, which is kids first.

ROVNER: The House passed a $50 billion expansion on a mostly partisan vote in August but the Senate passed a $35 billion bill with a bipartisan consensus and a veto-proof margin. House leaders basically took that version one over 45 moderate Republicans and sent it to the White House in September where, as Emanuel puts it…

Rep. EMANUEL: The president and a few Republicans said no.

ROVNER: Just enough Republicans it turns out to sustain that veto. Weeks of furious negotiating failed to produce enough Republican votes to override a second veto of an even more modest expansion. Finally, last week, Congress bound to the inevitable and voted to expand the Children's Health Program at essentially its current funding level until 2009, after President Bush leaves office.

Meanwhile, several other health bills, President Bush said he would sign languish. A bill to create so-called parity between benefits for mental ailment and other health conditions and private health insurance has gotten caught up in a fight basically between Democrats in the House and Democrats in the Senate.

And even more popular measure to bar insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of a person's genetic makeup passed the House in April by a vote of 420 to 3. But it's being held up in the Senate by a single member, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn. He says he's for the bill but he wants it change to give employers more protections.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): We shouldn't have a genetic nondiscrimination bill that puts employers liable for something that they're not liable for.

ROVNER: Still, despite the lack of output, House Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel doesn't apologize for making the effort, and says in the end, he thinks Democrats will prevail.

Rep. EMANUEL: I think this is such a fundamental issue given the health care crisis to this country that the ability of some Republicans will stand by the president and deny 10 million children of working parent's health care will be an issue in a number of elections. And right after the elections in November, those 10 million children will get health care.

ROVNER: And while the new Democratic Congress might not have a lot to show in terms of legislative accomplishments, says Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, it did succeed in changing the terms of the health care debate in Washington.

Mr. DREW ALTMAN (President, Kaiser Family Foundation): The world's universal coverage hadn't been heard in Washington health policy circles for years, and now it's back in the public discourse. And overall health care is rising again as a national issue, and the attention in the Congress played a role in that.

ROVNER: The current Congress still has another year to make its mark on health care. Meanwhile, it's become one of the top issues in the presidential campaign with Democrats arguing for a bigger government role in providing health insurance and Republicans pushing for a more market-driven system. Whoever wins will, in large part, determine the health care agenda for the next Congress.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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