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Alton Telegraph: Congressman Hears Plenty On Health Care

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Alton Telegraph: Congressman Hears Plenty On Health Care

U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, D-Rock Island, has gotten an earful - maybe even two - from his constituents on the controversial health care reform issue.

Hare represents Illinois' 17th Congressional District, which includes Calhoun and Macoupin counties, about half each of Greene and Jersey counties, and a bit of the northeastern corner of Madison County.

During the last few months, he has participated in 20 town hall meetings on health care reform - two of them by teleconference - around his district. He admits they weren't always pretty.

"A couple of them were pretty out there in terms of hollering, but I don't mind that, as long as it's fair," he said during a recent visit to The Telegraph newsroom. "I will tell you, there were a few of them I didn't enjoy doing, but I did them, and I'm glad I did them. I've got nothing to hide on this bill."

In fact, Hare said he thinks that's part of the reason why so many Americans are confused and suspicious about proposals to reform health care - too many in Congress, and especially in the U.S. Senate, have tried to hash the issue out behind closed doors.

"I don't know what the Senate is doing, and I think they're doing a disservice by all this secretive nonsense," he said.

In particular, he criticized the actions of the Senate Finance Committee, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, who have been variously reported over the last few months to be near a deal or to be unable to reach agreement.

"It's bad enough that the other 94 senators don't know what they're doing, but we in the House don't know, and the American people don't know," Hare said. "Then, you've got mixed signals. You've got (U.S. Sen. Charles) Grassley (R-Iowa), who says we're close to a deal, and then he's got a fund-raising letter out saying, 'I'm going to kill this bill no matter what it takes,' or he's coming home and talking about death panels.

"If you don't like the bill, just say so."

Hare said he was particularly irate at Grassley and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee last year, for their use of the term "death panel" to describe what Hare says is really an innocuous provision of the House bill.

"The 'death panel' claim, I thought, was so incredibly bad, because older people are scared to death about that," the Rock Island Democrat said.

Hare explained that the provision merely allows physicians who consult with their older patients about living wills, "do not resuscitate" orders and related matters - something many doctors already do - to be reimbursed for their services if they submit a claim to the insurance company.

"I think what Palin did and Grassley did was really unconscionable," he said. "I don't mind somebody saying, 'Your bill stinks.' Fair enough. But don't talk about death panels and 'putting grandma to sleep.'"

Though the provision seems to have been abandoned by Obama, Hare said he supports the so-called public option, in which the federal government would compete against private insurance companies to provide health insurance to Americans. But he said he's also amenable to the idea of setting up co-operatives in which Americans band together to buy insurance coverage in bulk, which could persuade insurance companies to offer them lower monthly premiums.

"I'm not one of those people that if I don't get it my way, I'm going to pick up my marbles and go home," he said. "Here's what I want to see in a health care bill:

"I want to see the end of pre-existing conditions. I don't want to see the government take over. If people have a plan they like, I want to see them keep it.

"I want to make sure the insurance companies do three things: Waive pre-existing conditions, pay the claim when you say you're going to pay the claim and not cancel somebody if they submit a claim. I don't think that's asking too much. I'm not trying to run anybody out of business here."

Hare said he is proud of an amendment to the House bill that he sponsored and was added to the legislation. He said he got the idea from a group of farmers from Wisconsin who attended one of his town hall meetings, noting that his district has a lot of farmers and other independent contractors, such as real estate agents. Such independent contractors are self-employed and can't get health care insurance from an employer, so they have to buy their own and often pay a stiff price for it.

About 60 of the Wisconsin farmers told Hare how they had formed a health care co-op. They got a 30 percent reduction in their monthly premiums.

"So, I thought if this will work in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which it has, let's give it an opportunity to work all around the country, particularly in rural districts, like I've got," he said. "It's totally optional. People don't have to do anything. If they want to buy their own private insurance on their own, they can. But I think it gives you strength in numbers.

"Whatever we have, you want people to have the ability to negotiate a lower premium. There's a lot of interest being shown in that."

Hare said he also has met with the CEOs of nine hospitals in his district to get their perspective on the issue. He said they told him that the percentage of uninsured people seeking care through their emergency rooms is approaching half. Hare said the hospital in Monmouth went from doing $400,000 of charity work - providing free care for the indigent - in 2008 to $1.3 million last year, and it is projecting $2.8 million of charity work this year.

"We've got to do something," Hare said. "I just don't think the numbers are sustainable. If we don't do anything, a family of four is going to end up in eight years spending 50 percent of their income on health care."

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