GUY RAZ, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
Prospects for a health care compromise in Congress before August 8th are growing dimmer. That's the president's preferred deadline, and the day the last senators leave town for summer break. Forty centrist House Democrats from the so-called Blue Dog Coalition are threatening to block the proposal in its current form. They argue the plans approved in some congressional committee so far are too costly.
President Barack Obama addressed the possible delay in his weekly Internet address today.
President BARACK OBAMA: This is what the debate in Congress is all about: whether we'll keep talking and tinkering and letting this problem fester as more families and businesses go under and more Americans lose their coverage, or whether we'll seize this opportunity - one we might not have again for generations - and finally pass health insurance reform this year.
RAZ: One of those Blue Dog Democrats is Arkansas Congressman Mike Ross.
Congressman, welcome to the program.
Representative MIKE ROSS (Democrat, Arkansas): Thanks, Guy. Good to be with you.
RAZ: Three congressional committees have so far approved three different health care bills that would, if passed, guarantee coverage to most Americans. Two committees have not including the one you sit on, the Energy and Commerce Committee. You are threatening to block the bill in its current form. Why is that?
Rep. ROSS: Well, the key phrase there is in its current form. The director of CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan office, testified before the Senate last week and indicated that the House bill does not really address the rising cost of health care and, in fact, will add to the debt in the long term.
RAZ: Congressman, what specifically do you object to in the bills proposed?
Rep. ROSS: Not enough cost containment. A number of the initiatives proposed by President Obama to help contain cost are not included in the House bill. Another concern we have is small businesses. We've got to develop a plan that exempts those small businesses from any penalties for not providing health insurance while also insuring that we're providing health coverage for the employees of those small businesses.
And then finally, a lot of talk about a public option, a government-run health care plan that would be optional. Our concern about that is the fact that they want to tie that to Medicare rates, and we have regional and rural disparities in how Medicare providers are paid.
In fact, in rural America especially, you can walk into a doctor's office and there's a sign that says we no longer accept new Medicare patients. We believe the secretary of Health and Human Services should be negotiating with the providers just like the insurance companies do in the private sector in terms of the reimbursement rates.
RAZ: If, in fact, reimbursements are evened out, surely it would raise the cost of health care in the country. How would you propose then to cut overall costs?
Rep. ROSS: Well, we've got a list that totals hundreds of billions of dollars of savings to the current system. Exempting small businesses, doing away with enormous disparities that exist regionally, and especially among rural versus urban providers, we can do that and make deeper cuts into containing cost in the current systems.
RAZ: But where do you find those cuts?
Rep. ROSS: Well, I think there's a lot of places to look. The president has an idea that is not included in the current House bill where we take the day-to-day running of Medicare and setting reimbursement rates out of the Congress, take it out of politics and have a professional advisory board that makes those tough decisions.
We're going to have a number of memos that we'll be offering as the market continues to try and resuscitate this current House bill. There's some folks from the right that have been calling my office very pleased that, you know, they perceive I'm trying to kill the health care. At the end of the day, I suspect they're going to be sorely disappointed because none of us within the Blue Dog Coalition are trying to kill health care reform.
RAZ: Congressman, the president, of course, has asked the Congress to come up with a bill before August 8th, before Congress goes for recess for summer break. Is that likely to happen?
Rep. ROSS: I think it could. Look, my concern is we don't need any artificial deadlines. We've been trying to reform health care since Harry Truman. We're very close. And whether it happens August 1 or, you know, a day or two or a few weeks after August 1, I mean the American people are ready for us to slow down and have time to debate these issues and improve upon the final product and actually have time to read the bills that we're voting on.
RAZ: Isn't there a risk that your proposed changes would water down health care reform so much that the whole point of it, to guarantee coverage to most Americans would simply be lost?
Rep. ROSS: Absolutely not. Our bill is going to ensure access to more people. It's going to ensure that those who do not have health insurance today will have the opportunity to be a part of an affordable health insurance plan, and it's going to ensure that those who have health insurance today will have it in the future.
What we're doing is improving upon the bill and no way are we watering down the bill. We're simply trying to force Congress to contain the cost. And for us to do anything less than that, in my opinion, would be watering down the bill at worst and sugar coating it at best.
RAZ: Congressman Mike Ross heads up the Health Care Taskforce for the centrist Blue Dog Democrats. He joined us from his home in Prescott, Arkansas.
Congressman, thanks for your time.
Rep. ROSS: You bet, Guy. Good to be with you.