Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."
I believe that health care should be viewed as a right, not a privilege. Continuity of care is essential to leading a healthy life. Therefore, health care policy must be comprehensive, beginning with prenatal health care and continuing into a person's golden years. I believe in health care from the cradle to the grave.
A sluggish economy and rising unemployment are leaving an increasing number of Coloradans without health insurance. And a number of economic and political factors have lead to double-digit increases in health care premiums, higher out-of-pocket expenses, reduced coverage, and less choice for consumers.
On the provider side, doctors and nurses tell me how crowded emergency rooms, wage issues, government regulation, and personnel shortages in the health care workforce have resulted in diminished access to health care services. Next, many states are facing budget shortfalls as a result of the economic slowdown. Many families are turning to the state for Medicaid coverage. The Medicaid rolls are swelling and are already under severe financial pressure. This means extra expenses for Colorado's Medicaid program at a time when members' health care costs are exceeding the amount of money the state spends on Medicaid.
Something has to change.
The Federal government has a role to play in giving Americans greater access to quality, affordable health care. The debate over how to provide health care coverage to more people includes a combination of public and private initiatives. Anyone who thinks it can be all one way or the other is delaying the chance to getting anything at all. Both sides of the ideological spectrum are going to have to give. That may mean we'll have modest progress, but modest progress is better than no progress at all.
Prenatal care is critical in the early stages of life. If you make sure that pregnant women have access to prenatal care, it will have an enormous impact on the futures of the mother, the child and the family. Congress should pass legislation that would make it easier for states to cover pregnant low-income women through the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). SCHIP is a federal program that provides health care for low-income children who don't qualify for Medicaid. By covering pregnant women states would be able to reduce infant mortality and improve child health, while at the same time, optimize use of their SCHIP funds.
COVERAGE FOR THE UNINSURED AND UNDERINSURED
We must not forget about the 45 million Americans who have no health care at all.
We can make private insurance more affordable and more available through a refundable and transferable health care tax credit. If employers do not provide health insurance, the employees will be able to use the tax credit to help finance the purchase of private individual health plans. If employers pay part of the cost, employees can use the credit to help pay their share of the premium. The unemployed will have the credit available to help with the cost of insurance between jobs, and early retirees will be able to use the credit until they are eligible for Medicare. This proposal will help reduce the number of uninsured by making health premiums for affordable.
However, not all people can get coverage through the tax credit. Many uninsured or underinsured Americans are working poor who would not benefit from tax incentives. Therefore we should look at expanding coverage under existing public programs. The community health center program has been one of the most successful health programs in our nation. Community health centers and rural health clinics play a critical role in health care for medically underserved rural and urban communities. Colorado is home to a number of health centers like The People's Clinic, Clinica Campesina and SALUD. Without their presence, thousands of Coloradans would lose access to cost-effective primary and preventive care services. That's why I support increased funding for the community health center program. President Bush has called for doubling the number of centers in the country, and Congress should provide the necessary funds to do that.
MEDICAID RELIEF FOR STATES
States, including Colorado, are expecting budget shortfalls this year and could use relief on the rapidly rising costs of providing Medicaid coverage to the elderly and the poor. That's why I support legislation to extend the temporary Medicaid relief to states for the federal share of a state's Medicaid expenditures. This proposal would allow states to continue covering the people they serve under Medicaid and cover new people who are eligible. Lawmakers should not cut back on health care in the economic times, when people need it most.
SHORING UP OUR PUBLIC HEALTH SYSTEM
Our public health system is a critical component of our nation's homeland defense. In addition to being the health care safety-net for the poor, uninsured and elderly, our public health institutions - our hospitals, our emergency response teams - represent the infrastructure that would be the first to respond in the event of a terrorist attack. But over the years, we have severely weakened our public health system, and now we are playing catch up in abilities to respond to catastrophic events, whether natural or terrorist in nature.
Emergency rooms have become the primary care provider for thousands of uninsured Coloradans. But our hospitals are in no shape to deal with a surge in patients. In order to deal with tight budgets, hospitals have cut back on surplus supplies and space.
We should do more to give hospitals the tools they need to operate more efficiently and effectively. First, Congress should pass legislation that would provide hospitals with at an inflationary adjustment to their rates, as well as prevent reductions in payments to teaching hospitals. Second, we should pass legislation that would prevent further cuts to hospitals that serve our most vulnerable populations, such as the poor, disabled and children. Third, Congress should pass the Area Wage and Standardized Rate bill to set a standardized payment amount for all hospitals at the large urban amount so that rural and small urban hospitals are better able to attract and retain health care workers. And finally, Congress should provide significant funding to help states develop and test systems to coordinate emergency care, increase hospital capacity, educate medical personnel, and train those people who are first to respond to emergencies. Funds should also be provided to ensure that we have an adequate supply of vaccines and treatments for all Americans and plans for distributing and properly administering them. President Bush has made room in his budget for strengthening public health and so should Congress.
SENIOR HEALTH CARE
One of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century is how we will deal with the aging of America. With the senior population on track to double over the next decade, we will need to enact reforms to deal with an increase in the utilization of health care services.
Many seniors have told me that they are having problems finding doctors. This has been in large part because of burdensome paperwork and low payments from the Medicare program. I support legislation that reforms the audit process and makes some broad regulatory reforms, changes billing practices, and increases education and communication to educate providers about proper documenting and billing procedures. This will allow doctors to spend more time with patients and less time filling out paperwork. Second, I support rolling back the physician payment cut that the Bush Administration will implement in 2005.
Next, as I have traveled around the district, many senior citizens have told me about the great difficulty they face in buying prescription drugs. Hospital administrators tell me that the single largest expenditure increase in their budget is on prescription drugs. Insurer's spending on drugs has shot up from $40 billion in 1996 to an estimated $118 billion this year. And almost four years ago, I released reports which shows that seniors in my district who don't have drug coverage pay twice as much for the medicines as do people who do have coverage.
Currently, Medicare does not cover outpatient prescription drug costs. We have an obligation to our nation's seniors to provide them with the lifesaving treatments they need and deserve. No senior should be faced with the choice of buying food, paying the electric bill or buying critical life saving medicines.
I believe that any Medicare should include a fair, affordable prescription drug benefit. Every senior should have access to high-quality drug coverage. Medicare should include different choices for seniors to suit their health care needs. While the government should provide universal assistance for seniors, others should be able to keep their private coverage. Congress should repeal and replace several provisions of the Medicare reform law that it passed in 2003. Specifically, Congress should give Medicare the ability to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiares, much in the same way that the VA does for veterans, and Congress should fill in the gap in coverage that seniors will have to assume on their own before the drug benefit is scheduled to go into effect in 2006.
Finally, I support bipartisan legislation to provide an above the line deduction - available to everyone regardless of whether they itemize - for long-term care insurance premiums to help offset the costs of purchasing a long-term policy. The proposal would also give caregivers an annual tax credit of $3,000 to help cover the costs associated with caring for a sick relative living in the caregiver's home.
MENTAL HEALTH CARE
I am cosponsor of the Paul Wellsone Mental Health and Substance Abuse Parity Act, bipartisan that prohibits group and individual health plans from imposing treatment limitations or financial requirements on the coverage of mental health benefits and on the coverage of substance abuse and chemical dependency benefits if similar limitations or requirements are not imposed on medical and surgical benefits.
Mental illness is an illness and needs to be treated like other illnesses, like hypertension, cancer, or heart disease. There is no scientific justification for treating mental and physical health differently. The Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health in 1999 states that diagnoses of mental disorder made using specific criteria are as reliable as those for general medical disorders. Most people who suffer from mental illness can live normal lives if they receive treatment but most can't receive treatment if their insurance won't pay for it.
Also, businesses will save millions of dollars in productivity and missed workdays due to mental illness. A small investment in insurance coverage can pay big dividends with healthier and more productive workers. An employer that would refuse to lose a valued worker to heart disease or cancer shouldn't lose a worker to clinical depression or alcoholism.
I supported the bipartisan initiative to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health by 2003. The increased funding for NIH will undoubtedly help researchers find new treatments and possible cures for these and other life-threatening diseases, such as heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, AIDS/HIV, diabetes, Lupus and breast cancer. Doubling the budget isn't enough; we must continue to fund the NIH at the rate of inflation, which is about 8-10%. Failure to do so will result in fewer new research grants and discontinuing current research programs because of lack of funds.
Furthermore, I support expanding the current federal policy on embryonic stem cell research. Since President Bush announced his stem cell policy in August 2001, the 78 lines available for research at that time have dwindled down to 15 today and are difficult to grow. NIH recently delisted seventeen stem cell lines from the NIH registry listing those that are eligible for funding under the current federal policy. Major universities in "stem cell friendly" states are establishing research centers with private and state money to bypass the federal limits, but this is not enough in order to aggressively explore the great promise that stem cells can play in finding treatments or cures for some of the world's deadliest diseases.
Our veterans have protected our country so that we can live free and enjoy our American way of life. Unfortunately, we have not always lived up to our promise to honor their sacrifice. Our veterans often received poor pay and lived in poor housing conditions while they defended America, and following their service they haven't always received the health care they were promised. I have made veterans a legislative priority by co-sponsoring more than two dozen bills designed to ensure that veterans receive the benefits they deserve. One of these bills, H.R. 303, amends Title 38 of the Untied States Code to permit veterans who retired with over 20 years of service and who have service-connected disabilities to receive compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs while receiving their retirement pay, without deduction from either. Veterans should not be penalized for being hurt in the line of duty. Veterans deserve to have their benefit claims processed in a timely and efficient manner. Waiting over a year to have a claim processed is simply unacceptable. I have written a letter to the Secretary of the Veterans Administration asking him to work with me to reduce this backlog and get veterans the benefits they are entitled to and need to protect their health. That is why I am proud to have supported legislation to do just that and to have cast my vote for the single-largest appropriation increase to our veterans in over a generation. We promised to take care of our veterans if they took care of us, and I will work to make sure that we fulfill our promise to them.
ROCKY FLATS WORKERS
It is critical that we get the closed Rocky Flats weapons facility cleaned up as soon as possible, but we cannot forget about the men and women who have risked their health to win the Cold War. The people who worked at Rocky Flats played a key role in nuclear weapons production in our country. Some were exposed to radiation and other dangerous substances, like beryllium, and have developed serious illnesses. I have been working with leaders in Congress who have nuclear facilities in their states to make sure that these workers receive the compensation they deserve. That is why I support the "Energy Employees Occupational Illness and Compensation Act", which would establish a compensation and health care program for employees of the Department of Energy, its contractors, subcontractors, and certain vendors, who have sustained beryllium and radiation-related injury, illness, or death due to the performance of their duties. Just because the Cold War is over doesn't mean we can forget about the people who brought us through this difficult time. Unfortunately, retires at Rocky Flats do not have guaranteed retirement benefits once the facility is completely cleaned-up. So I have been working with the Department of Energy to guarantee that there are health benefits for people who worked at Rocky Flats. There were a lot of health risks that people were not aware of when Rocky Flats first opened for production but we have since learned of many of the dangers of working with materials like plutonium and beryllium. America is a world leader because of the sacrifices our nuclear workers took and we need to make sure those sacrifices weren't for nothing.