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Conference Call With Senator Chris Dodd And Senator Debbie Stabenow


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MODERATOR: Okay, everybody. We have Senator Dodd and Senator Stabenow on the call.

Senator Dodd, do you want to start?

SEN. DODD: Well, great. Thanks very much.

And let me begin by thanking all of you for joining us for a few minutes here this morning to kind of give you an update on the health- care debate, an issue that is progressing.

And let me thank Senator Reid, our majority leader, for helping to organize this event, and I'm delighted to be with my colleague from Michigan, Senator Stabenow, who serves on the Finance Committee. And obviously, the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor, Pensions Committee, under Senator Kennedy, are going to be deeply involved in the process, as are the members and, of course, the entire membership of the Senate and the House in the coming weeks.

And a lot of you may be already aware of this, but just to bring you up to date, we've had an extensive number of bipartisan meetings that Senator Baucus has hosted. He has, now, the roundtable working discussions that are ongoing. We had a very lengthy meeting the other day between Senator Kennedy and -- (audio break) -- obviously deeply involved in the issue as well and talking about how to proceed with this.

I think the goal is to begin a markup of the health care bill sometime around early June, mid-June, and with the goal in mind to complete a process before the August break. Now, that's the schedule as of right now. And obviously, Senator Baucus and Senator Kennedy, along with their colleagues Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi, will set more firmly that -- those -- (inaudible) -- agendas to go forward.

The good news is this: I think a lot of us are very optimistic that for the first time since the effort back in '93 that we really have a very strong opportunity now to achieve a major health care reform legislation. This is a very different climate than it was 15 years ago. The people at the table who asked for a universal health care program involved elements who were opposed -- flatly opposed to anything at all 15 years ago.

And there are a lot of different reasons for that. Obviously, the economics of the country demand our ability to achieve this result. When you're consuming as much as 16 percent of the gross domestic product of the country -- and some estimate that number could jump to 36 percent within the next 10 years -- the economics mandate that we get something done in this area, or we're going to make our fiscal condition of the country almost -- to reach a point where it would be almost impossible to reverse it.

So there are a lot of people at the table on that for that reason. And many others are there because of the absolute necessity of having health care. When you have 45 million people, 9 million children a part of that number, totally uninsured and a substantial number of 160 million that have health care coverage that can hardly afford the premiums -- in my state alone, there's been a 42-percent increase in health care premiums over the last seven or eight years.

And those numbers, I think, are probably fairly reflective of what's gone on across the nation as a whole.

So for all of those reasons, I think there's a strong desire on the part of members to work together. I can tell you flatly that Max Baucus and Ted Kennedy are determined, as is Harry Reid, that this be a bipartisan bill. We are determined, if we can, to achieve a result that would produce 70, 75 votes in the United States Senate on this issue.

And so while I know there's a lot of attention being paid to the reconciliation question, the motivation of the leadership is to make this a bipartisan proposal. It really needs to be if we're going to succeed and then have the kind of support nationally for the efforts we'll be making.

And so I for one, as part of an effort in the Health and Education and Labor Committee, have been working with my colleagues on the committee, particularly Senator Mikulski, Senator Harkin, Senator Bingaman, who have had almost a dozen different hearings on quality, on cost and on prevention, and have outlined some very strong and, I think, very appealing suggestions on how those issues could be addressed as part of a bill. The intention is to have one piece of legislation between the Finance Committee and the Health and Education and Labor Committee.

And as Max Baucus has said over and over again, and I think it's very worthwhile to mention this -- and then I'll stop and let Senator Stabenow pick up -- is this has to be an American plan. It's not a Canadian plan or a British plan or anyone else's plan. We're different in this country. We like choice. We want to give people options here so that we can have the kind of diversity that people demand in our country, the individuality that's critical, I think, for -- (inaudible) -- as well. And the idea of working together on a bipartisan fashion with the two committees of the Senate, and obviously, the involvement of all of our colleagues as we move forward is going to be essential if we're going to produce the kind of results we'd like as early as we can this year.

The president has been tremendously supportive. The health care summit, I think, was tremendously worthwhile, bringing people together to share ideas and thoughts on how to move forward. And the White House is very involved in this process and -- (audio break) -- forward in these coming days and weeks to produce the results that all Americans are seeking.

Debbie, do you want to pick up on that at all?

SEN. STABENOW: I do. And let me first just say -- thank you. Senator Dodd has played a very, very important role in all of this, and so we thank our chairman. But I also want to thank you for being so committed to this issue and playing a very, very important role as to how we go forward.

Just one word on process. I think all of you are probably aware of what we're doing in the Finance Committee with our roundtables. We had one very successful roundtable a week ago on the delivery system. We'll be talking about coverage and finance, financing of the system. It was a very positive roundtable discussion, that I thought out brought out much more in common than what we would disagree on in terms of Republicans and Democrats.

And we are absolutely committed to doing everything on our end -- now, obviously, it takes two, but on our end, you know, we will do everything we can -- while achieving the goal which is most important of universal coverage. We want this to be something that has broad support in teaming up and working with Republican colleagues, and want that to happen.

In our meeting, our first meeting, it was very clear that everyone understands we need to focus more on prevention and wellness and people being able to see a primary-care doctor rather than going to the emergency room. I can tell you in Michigan, where we have seen unemployment rising so significantly because of what's been happening with the auto industry, we're the -- we have the highest unemployment in the country right now, at 12.6 percent. And as the -- as unemployment goes up, people lose their jobs, you know, they are moving more and more to emergency rooms.

The number-one request I get for help in Michigan is to help expand emergency rooms, because that's where people are seeing their doctor. That's where they're getting follow-up. That's where the kids are getting care that would normally be seen by a pediatrician. And that's the most expensive way to provide health care, which is why we spend twice as much as any other country on health care -- (audio break) -- any sense -- twice as much as any other country, and yet have over 46 million people with no health insurance, and rising -- and outcomes in many areas, like infant mortality, that -- that are low.

So we have every reason -- there has to be a sense of urgency about this question. And we have that sense of urgency. Max Baucus, Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, myself -- our caucus has a tremendous sense of urgency. And I can tell you, after being home -- I'm in Michigan today, where we are every day now -- today more announcements on the auto industry, later this week the announcements for Chrysler -- that one of the critical impacts of what is happening for families, for early retirees in Michigan is the whole question of whether they're going to have health care for their families and for themselves.

And so we are absolutely committed that in the greatest country in the world, that health care be a right, not a privilege. And we are going to do everything in our power to get every American -- (audio break) -- that provides universal health coverage.

SEN. DODD: I should have mentioned, Debbie, like you in Michigan, I've held a series of health care forums. And it's been remarkable to me.

We had one of our town hall meetings at 8:30 on a Monday morning. And don't ask me why we scheduled a town hall meeting at that hour of the day. And I fully expected about 10 people to show up, at a community college outside of Hartford. Over 700 people showed up, at 8:30 in the morning, on the health care issue.

One in Danbury, Connecticut; one in New London, Connecticut. Four and five hundred people showed up at each one of those. And so the interest; we've lost about 140,000 jobs in Connecticut; 20,000 small businesses have closed their doors. And I emphasize the point that Debbie has made.

When that happens, people in many cases, if they had insurance, have lost it. And that fear, that gripping fear that they may find themselves in trouble; there are bankruptcy\credit-card issues directly related to this.

Over 40 percent of the people in arrears, on credit cards, is because of a health care crisis in their family. So all of these issues are interrelated. There are economic issues, obviously the fear that people have, distress in families that occurs.

The sense of urgency that Debbie Stabenow talked about is absolutely accurate. There is that sense.

(Audio break.)

Open up for any comments or questions.

Q Senator Dodd, hi, my name is -- (inaudible) -- from Capitol News Connection. And tomorrow, the House Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will be holding a hearing about state experiences with health care revision.

What new information are you hoping to gain from the hearing?

SEN. DODD: Well, again, I think -- (inaudible) -- what the focus is. But as Senator Stabenow so accurately has pointed out again, people are looking first of all for cost. If they're cured today, how do we keep those costs down? And that's going to be a major part of this debate.

Whether or not -- what options will be on the table, in terms -- there's the debate that's occurring, about a so-called public option. And I know there are people who are suggesting that this is a non- starter.

I think at this point, like the reconciliation debate and the public option debate, that we need to take a breath here, step back. The last thing we need to do is have a repetition of what happened 15 years ago, where people are rejecting ideas, even before they've been explored.

And so again my hope is, at those hearings, that people have an option to use it as an educational tool, to be talking about various ideas and how things might work, to achieve that universality.

There are four great pillars that our -- that our leadership has talked about in achieving health care. One is universality. The second is prevention. The third is quality. And the fourth is, of course, cost. Now, you could rearrange those pillars in any order you'd like. They all bear equal standing, in my view. And they're absolutely essential as we move forward, to keep those pillars in mind that we're trying to achieve with our -- with our efforts.

Q Thank you very much.

Q Senators, you both talked about -- I'm sorry. This is Jeff Young at The Hill newspaper. You both talked about bipartisanship. And I'm aware, of course, of the work that the Finance Committee and the Health Committee have been doing with their Republican counterparts. But I wonder, now that it seems to be settled that budget reconciliation will be a possibility -- that it'll be in the budget and you might end up using it -- A, are you afraid that that might -- that that might poison the atmosphere a little bit in the way that Republicans have said that it would? And, B, have you spoken to any of your colleagues on your committees on the other side since this -- since this became a reality, to get a sense of how they see it?

SEN. DODD: Well, I can -- I had to speak in a meeting last week that Senator Kennedy hosted, along with the -- Senator Grassley, Senator Baucus, Senator Hatch, Senator Enzi. And without getting into the direct conversations, I can tell you that Senator Baucus and Senator Kennedy -- and I agree with them -- that we have no desire to actually have to use reconciliation whatsoever. We all understand that if we get down to that kind of an acrimonious, bitter debate, that the country will lose, that we really do need to try to put together a bill that will enjoy that broad-based support. And they are determined to do everything possible to make that happen. And I applaud them for it.

The concern is that if this breaks down, we don't want to lose the opportunity to achieve something so critically important to our country as a major health care reform bill. And so there's no appetite whatsoever, I can tell you, for jumping to reconciliation. But there's also even less of an appetite to miss this opportunity that Senator Stabenow so accurately describes as that utter and deep sense of urgency we feel in the country about the importance of achieving this issue.

SEN. STABENOW: And if I might just add to that, because I agree totally with what Senator Dodd just said, the reality is, for us, we will continue to reach out on the Finance Committee. Every signal has been sent that we want this to be bipartisan.

Senator Baucus, Senator Grassley worked together on an ongoing basis. Many of us on the committee have been working together on a variety of health care issues. And so we want this to be a process that everybody can feel proud of at the end of the day, that achieves the goal.

But I would also put one caveat in. And that is, when all is said and done, if there is a decision not -- by the Republicans not to join with us in doing that, you know, the folks in Michigan in the end want to be able to see a doctor; want to be able to have their kids taken care of; want to be able to make sure, if they've got cancer or some other critical disease, that they can be able to get the treatment they need. And in the end, they don't care -- (chuckles) -- if it's Democrats, Republicans, reconciliation, whatever. They -- the big issue is that this is real for people. My businesses, large and small, you know, can't survive under the weight of all of this. We have to deal with this.

And so with that sense of urgency in mind for me, you know, and I'm sure for Chris as well, we will do everything in our power but -- you know, with what we have. And we believe and are moving in a direction of bipartisanship. But in the end, it really will depend -- and some may be strangely just differences in philosophy that don't lend themselves to an agreement. But I think there is much more we agree on than disagree on, and that there's a real opportunity here for everybody to come together and do something that everybody can be proud of.

Q Senator Dodd, it's Mary O'Leary from New Haven.

SEN. DODD: Yeah.

Q Is there going to be an agreement on how this is going to be funded, or all the particulars of that? Is that something that everyone's going to come to the table on?

SEN. DODD: I'm sorry, what was the -- what was the --

Q It's on the financing of all this, the various proposals from the president.

SEN. DODD: You've raised probably, of all the issues that can be raised, that's probably the thorniest one. And obviously, we've got to deal with it before this is completed. And let me just say, to begin with, that financing is important, the cost is important, the effect on the economy. I think inaction, or our failure to get this done, the cost is -- is staggering.

We're spending $2.2 trillion a year on health care. That's more than any other nation in the world does. And when you consider the results, we have the highest rate of infant mortality among all industrialized nations in the world.

The last numbers indicate at least 100,000 people a year lose their lives because of medical errors. I mentioned the -- that as a percentage of the gross domestic product -- (audio break) -- spent on health care and the likelihood of doubling that if we don't act. So while -- so while cost is a very legitimate, important issue, the cost of inaction is even far more costly than anything we've been talking about.

I subscribe to the notion -- and this is going to be one of the difficult selling points, and Senator Stabenow rightly raised this as a critical issue, and that is the prevention. Can we move from an incentive-based system where the success of our system today depends on how many people see a doctor and how many hospital beds get filled to a system where the fewer people we keep out of doctors' offices and hospitals will actually save money but also improve the health care -- or the health of the nation.

And that is going to require some investment. And that's going to be, maybe, a hard sell. But the idea of investing in information technology -- doing things like Pitney Bowes did, a company here in my state which has led the country in many ways on incentivizing the employees at that place and supporting an effort on healthier lifestyles and prevention.

And so there are going to be some investments that will need to be made if we're going to bend the curve, as we must, over the next five, 10, 15 years to bring down that cost of health care. So it'll be a very thorny debate. I don't have any quick answers for you. But it is going to be probably the most difficult part of this bill. But it ultimately will determine, I think, whether or not we're able to achieve those cost reductions that are essential.

Q Senator --

Q Senator, this is Donna Smith at Reuters. If I could ask a question on a related issue -- and this may concern Senator Stabenow more, because there's a suspected case of swine flu in Michigan right now. Is there a role at this point for Congress to play in -- as this disease spreads? And are you in contact with your state officials? And is -- you know, what is happening there at the -- between the state and -- level and the federal level?

STAFF: And quickly, could we ask that people mute their phones so that we don't hear typing or background conversations? Thank you.

SEN. DODD: Debbie, go ahead.

SEN. STABENOW: Well, I -- sure. I am aware of what is happening. We certainly -- you know, the CDC has determined that this virus is contagious and spreading from human to human, and we are now watching this very closely in Michigan through the governor's office and the people at the health department here who are very engaged in this. I know the head of the CDC is very focused, and -- as well as Janet Napolitano with Homeland Security and so on.

We'll have to determine what action we need to take, and certainly -- and I'm sure that, through the HELP Committee, that Chris will be doing whatever needs to be done, in terms of actions in terms of Congress.

But I think right now it's about monitoring, it's about making people aware so that they can take actions, if, in fact, there are problems, and working with local officials where this is found so that we can stop the spread. It appears that they -- they're on top of things very quickly and moving very quickly on this, and I know they're certainly working with the folks here in the States.

Q Senators --

SEN. DODD: I'd just add to that that, again, that our staffs should be briefed immediately by the appropriate -- (audio break) -- I'd just underscore what Senator Stabenow has said, that there is a lot of coordination already. The White House yesterday was deeply involved, along with the mayor's office of New York, the governor's office there, because of the outbreak, that that school -- or a group of students had actually traveled during the spring break to Mexico. A thousand cases there.

One of the important issues we're looking at -- and obviously, living in Connecticut, here, the proximity to New York -- but is the amount of dosages that'll be available.

And we're told that there are more than adequate amount of dosages. Steps are being taken to increase them, if need by.

The most important thing at this point is, people need not panic about this. Obviously the news; people are alarmed and concerned, as is understandable. But all the appropriate steps are being taken.

This is very -- if receiving treatment, there's little or no worry that people could worry about a loss of life. It is contagious. But we can manage this. We can handle this. And I've been very impressed with the level of coordination and the fact that we have the dosages necessary to be able to deal with this, should the case expand.

MODERATOR: This is going to have to be the last question.

(Cross talk.)

Q The public option is likely to look like the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan. I wanted to ask you, do you agree with that assessment? And do you think that such an approach is a true public option, the way a Medicare-like option would be? Or is it really public administration of private plans?

SEN. DODD: Well, it could be either. I think it's a great question, because I think too often, you know -- I wish we could change the language to some degree. Because sometimes the language creates almost a physical response on the part of people. And you say the word public option and people have in their minds, you know, just a totally government-run plan. Medicare is a public-private option, in many ways.

So again this is one where I think people need to step back and take a look, at all of this and how it could work, before they jump to conclusions about an outcome here that no one, in my view, yet has settled on. I for one believe that a public option that is well-run, that competition can be healthy in all of this. It's not an attempt or a conspiracy to crowd out.

(Cross talk.)

MODERATOR: I think we lost Senator Dodd.

(Cross talk.)

SEN. STABENOW: I am still on. And although we're hearing this, let me just quickly say this.

I know this is the last question, but let me just quickly say that I strongly support doing an option that would be -- an option that would be a nonprofit -- (audio break) -- some kind that would really allow -- (audio break) -- creativity, some -- do more demonstration projects on how we can be addressing cost and -- because there are a number issues, a number of demonstrations that we're talking about. I think that an option that is involved more directly -- a nonprofit option with HHS can be very, very useful for the public.

And so I hope -- we don't know what it's going to look like, as Senator Dodd said. But there is a way to do this that both is -- competes fairly with the private insurance companies that we fully intend to have involved in the delivery system but also would give us the ability to try out some demonstrations in a way that could have positive effects.

And I thank you very much. I'm going to have to leave as well. And I appreciate everybody on the call.

Q Thank you, Senator.

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