SERVICE MEMBERS HOME OWNERSHIP TAX ACT OF 2009 -- (Senate - December 20, 2009)
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Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. President, I thank the Senator from Montana for yielding. I thank him for his tremendous leadership on this important fight here on the floor of the Senate.
First, I commend my colleagues for strapping on their snow gear. The Presiding Officer comes from the State of Minnesota, where this kind of a storm we have had over the last few days is not that unusual a development. I like a good 16-inch dusting from time to time. We all know what an important issue reforming our health care system is, and braving the elements is a small price to pay.
I have come to the floor a lot over the past few months to discuss the challenges that are facing us as we work toward fixing our broken health care system. One overarching theme I continue to emphasize is just how important this is to putting our economy back on track.
We have a bloated $12 trillion Federal debt which is being fed daily by growing health care costs. Every day, employers, small and large, are laying off workers and slashing benefits for their employees. Great American businesses, especially in our manufacturing sector, have nearly collapsed because of the rising costs of providing health care for their workers.
Those Americans who have coverage lack the peace of mind in knowing that their insurance will be there just when they need it. This lack of stability and peace of mind is a fundamental problem with the status quo today because it takes away one of the things valued most by Americans: their freedom. Today, they are reluctant to move to a new job, to advance their education, or start a small business for fear they won't be able to provide health care for their families.
As we struggle to mend our economy, we can't afford to tell people to stay put. We know from history that encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans is the key to promoting small business, creating jobs, and driving our economic recovery. Small businesses have accounted for 65 percent of all new jobs created in the past 15 years, but today anyone who owns or has ever tried to start their own business can attest to why rising health care costs is such a major problem in this country.
Take, for example, the story of a gentleman who just recently contacted me from Denver. I will pick up on the theme the Senator from Ohio was touching upon. If we listened to the people in our States, there would be no question that this reform is necessary. Dave is a small business owner. Last year, he saw his insurance premiums skyrocket 27 percent for his employees. When he questioned this unbelievable increase, his insurance company said all he needed to do to save money was just stop offering coverage to his employees. Just let them buy their own insurance, his insurance company told him. When he looked into that, when he checked it out, he found out that nearly half of his workforce would be ineligible for coverage because of preexisting conditions and that those who could obtain coverage were priced out and couldn't even afford it.
I hear this story time and time again--small business owners who want to do the right thing but end up facing annual double-digit increases in their costs. This is so troubling in this economic time because small businesses pay on average 18 percent more than large employers for the same level of coverage.
The status quo--and the Presiding Officer has been articulate and eloquent and involved in this fight--as he knows, is unacceptable, and we can't kick the can down the road any longer. The good news is the legislation we are considering contains essential provisions aimed at helping small businesses, individuals, and American families across our country. Let me touch on a few of the important provisions that are in this final package.
Health insurers will be organized into well-regulated marketplaces and finally forced to compete. This would then involve a creation of a more transparent process for individuals and small businesses, so, for the first time, you can actually compare insurance plans side by side.
The legislation helps individuals pay for these newfound health insurance options. More than half of the cost of reform goes to financing tax credits to put money back in the pockets of middle-class families to help them purchase a health plan. As Chairman Baucus has pointed out, these tax credits represent the biggest tax cut since 2001.
In addition, starting in 2010, many small businesses will also qualify for new tax credits worth up to 50 percent of the cost of providing health insurance to their employees.
Also in this bill--I can't emphasize this enough--Americans will no longer go bankrupt because of health care costs. We are the only developed country in the world where citizens go bankrupt because they have health care costs they can't afford.
Insurers will be prohibited from denying access to health care because of preexisting conditions, limiting coverage because of age or gender, or dropping the insurance someone has already paid for simply because they get sick.
Regardless of what we hear from our friends on the other side of the aisle, this legislation saves money, it strengthens Medicare, it reduces the deficit, and it puts us on a path to finally addressing our growing national debt. In fact, noted MIT economist Jon Gruber estimates this bill will save small businesses 25 percent, or about $65 billion per year, on health insurance. That translates into $30 billion in take-home pay and an estimated 80,000 saved jobs.
While the bill before us makes important improvements, I would also like to say a few words about the package of amendments offered by the distinguished majority leader. I took some time, as I think we all did over the last snowy 24 hours, to familiarize myself with the changes, and I wish to touch on some of the most promising revisions that have been made.
I wish to first note my appreciation for including the freshman package. These amendments were offered by myself and the freshman class, of which the Presiding Officer is a member, and they have attracted bipartisan support. They boast the endorsements of business, labor, and consumer groups. The provisions inject more cost containment in the bill, cut down on regulatory and bureaucratic redtape, and push even more aggressively toward a reformed health care system.
I am particularly pleased to see a provision I worked on that would expand the scope of a new board designed to strengthen Medicare. The amendment would task this board not only to monitor Medicare but to look for ways to improve the entire health care system as a whole. I believe the independent payment advisory board is one of the best cost-containment tools in the bill, and I want to acknowledge Senator Rockefeller for his work in developing the idea, as well as Leader Reid for putting even more bite into the authority of this important panel of experts.
Second, I wish to express how proud I am that Majority Leader Reid put so much emphasis in the managers' amendment on improving health care in rural America. The difficulty of accessing health care in rural communities is a unique struggle I have been increasingly concerned about, especially as I have traveled around Colorado's rural areas in the past several months. I am glad to see the inclusion of an amendment I authored to establish a rural physician pipeline training program designed to help bolster our rural health care workforce. Many of my colleagues joined me in offering this important amendment which has the potential to recruit and train more doctors to practice in rural areas.
In addition, I also authored an amendment that would establish an explicitly rural element to the community transformation grant program which is aimed at helping prevent and reduce chronic disease in communities across the country.
My amendment would ensure that rural areas are getting their share of this critical prevention and wellness funding, and I was very proud to see this important change included as well.
As I begin to close, I wish to say that although this bill has been strengthened significantly by the majority leader's efforts, it is not perfect. But I do not think anyone expects Congress to craft a perfect piece of legislation. We could never send the President a bill that fixes all the problems in our health care system or exactly reflects the priorities of every single Member of Congress, including myself. But what I am confident of is, this legislation can establish a sturdy foundation upon which we will build, improve, and strengthen access to health care in America.
Will there be mistakes made along the way? I do not doubt it. But as a lifelong mountain climber, I know from experience that the stumbles you experience along the way are a necessary part of reaching any mountaintop. Providing insurance and quality care for all our citizens is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the health and well-being of every American. These are the goals of our health insurance reform and, over the next few days, I look forward to passing a bill which modernizes our health care delivery system, increases much needed choice and competition in the health insurance industry, and helps put our economy back on track, while improving the financial security of middle-class working families.
I yield the floor.
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