On her visit to Homer last Friday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, delivered an emphatic “no” — but that was in response to a reporter’s question about if she had any presidential ambitions. One of a batch of moderate Republicans seen as potential swing votes in passage of the proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act, Murkowski wasn’t as forceful in her opposition to what some call Trumpcare, but Alaska’s senior senator still made her position clear. She does not support the current proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act and would be willing to work with Senate Democrats to fix it.
• On the U.S. House version of health care reform, she said, “The measure the House sent in my view was a measure that will not help Alaska.”
• On the BCRA laid down as a discussion draft, Murkowski said she could not support something written in closed meetings and that did not have a bipartisan discussion. “This is not ready for a vote, it’s not ready for support, it’s not something I could support,” she said. “I cannot commit to support legislation that doesn’t help Alaskans.”
• On not allowing Medicaid payments for Planned Parenthood. “You’re taking away her choice to the provider she wants. … I want to make sure the women — and men — who go to use vital services at Planned Parenthood are able to go to a place where there is a level of affordability.”
• On bipartisan efforts to fix ACA, she said, “We’re all going to have to stand down just a little bit. … You know I’ve been bad mouthing the ACA for a long while, but there are some good things in it and I want to work to save those. But I also want to make sure that you recognize that the ACA is not perfect and there’s a willingness to say ‘Let’s work together to address these (problems).”
Amidst national debate over health care reform, over the Fourth of July recess U.S. Senators returned home for parades and picnics. At an event July 7 in Homer City Hall, about 150 people jammed the Cowles Council Chambers and overflowed into the lobby, some of them from Anchorage and elsewhere in the state. Murkowski reiterated many of her points in a luncheon talk with the Kachemak Bay Rotary Club and in a press conference with Alaska reporters.
Murkowski started her Homer visit with a tour of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, and arrived at the town hall meeting wearing a CACS hoody sweatshirt and XtraTuf rubber boots. Murkowski began the meeting with opening remarks intended to pre-empt obvious questions.
“I’m going to make a wild assumption many of you are here to talk about health care,” she said.
Going through the recent chronology of the BCRA and her position, she concluded that the bill was “now, on the seventh, where to my knowledge we don’t have a measure that is ready for prime time.” She said that when she left Washington, D.C., there had been a lot of discussion on what the bill would need to get to 50 votes.
“I don’t think you make policy by saying ‘What is it going to take to get to 50 votes?’ What you need is to be working together. You need to be working for a process that allows participation of all sides,” she said.
Murkowski said she saw two issues with health care: the need to reform Medicaid and making the individual insurance marketplace more affordable. On Medicaid, she noted its importance to Alaskans, such as that the cost of 53 percent of all births in Alaska gets Medicaid funding.
“If you are elderly or in long-term care, Medicaid is really a huge support for you,” she said. “If you have a disability as a child or an adult, Medicaid is who we turn to.”
Rather than try to reform Medicaid at the same time as addressing the rising cost of individual insurance, Murkowski suggested setting aside Medicaid reform for the moment and dealing with insurance.
Murkowski had said she expected to hear stories of people with high insurance premiums and deductibles. Two local business owners spoke on that point. Sherry Stead, co-owner with her husband Don of Grace Ridge Brewery, said her $10,000 deductible was so high it didn’t pay for routine medical care.
“I don’t need health insurance. I need health care,” Stead said.
Another small business owner, Claire Waxman, co-owner with her husband Bob Schmutzler of Homer Saw &Cycle, said medical costs are so high she had to go to Thailand for care. She had gone with her son to get dental care and while there got a colonoscopy — $250. Doctors found a tumor and Waxman had it removed, $4,800 for eight days in the hospital and a 4-hour surgery. On paper, Waxman makes too much to get insurance subsidies in the Alaska market, she said.
“We can’t afford to go on like this. I can’t work my butt off and have my life savings taken away for medical bills,” Waxman said. “Something has to change. … We need universal health care.”
The idea of single-payer health insurance also got pushed by others at the meeting, including a group of Democratic Socialists of America, Anchorage. Michael Patterson, co-chair, asked Murkowski if she supported single-payer insurance, the concept where citizens pay premiums to the state and it covers all medical costs.
“I don’t think we can get to single payer as a nation,”Murkowski said. “We are not a country that is going to go as single payer given the political environment were in.”
At her Rotary talk, Murkowski suggested a way forward. It shouldn’t be through closed committee meetings.
“It has to be a process that’s open and bipartisan,” she said.
In a press conference after the talk, Murkowski elaborated on that point. Would reform be fixing ACA or repealing it?
“I don’t care what we call it,” Murkowski said. “I don’t care if it’s an add-on or a new bill. I think people want to know that we have worked to make things better for them and their families when it comes to affordability and access to health care.”