As you are reading this, Sen. Olympia Snowe is crystallizing forever the legacy she will leave behind when she retires after decades of public service. That’s because right now, Sen. Snowe is the linchpin of the process to move forward genuine health insurance reform in the U.S. Congress. If she continues to dawdle, stall and waiver, she will go down in history as the person most responsible for killing — perhaps once and for all — the possibility that Americans will finally be guaranteed high quality health care they can afford. For Sen. Snowe, as for health insurance reform overall, the time to make it happen is now. The clock is ticking, the insurance companies are mobilizing to protect their profits and, with enough time to do it and their seemingly endless supply of cash, they very well could twist and twist and twist the debate until it snaps.
Of course, it is hardly fair to put all the responsibility on Sen. Snowe alone. Genuine health insurance reform has been something of a Holy Grail for American politicians since Harry Truman was president. But we really are as close as we ever have been. Closer even.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (known as HELP) has reported out legislation that get us there. The HELP committee bill would dramatically improve the current system, ensuring that those people who have and like their current insurance would get to keep it and while driving down costs by finally giving health insurers a real competitor in the form of a public health insurance plan. It’s worth noting that in Maine competition between for-profit health insurance companies remains a talking point not a reality and Mainers are paying the price and then some.
The bill took on and conquered the things about the system today that no one but an insurance company executive could love. It barred companies from denying insurance to someone because of a pre-existing condition and stopped the common and truly vile practice of charging women more than men for the same policy because women are more likely to spend time in the hospital — having children.
Not a single Republican on the committee voted for it. The same holds true for a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that was put together — turf wars miraculously shunted aside — by the three committees that have jurisdiction over health issues. Sen. Snowe’s fellow Republicans have, virtually to a person, done nothing more productive than spout talking points about “rationing” and “socialism” that are so trite as to be embarrassing.
So really, if health insurance reform is killed, Sen. Snowe should by all rights get no more of the blame — in fact, less — than her fellow Republicans. But Sen. Snowe bears the extreme burden of knowing better. A moderate awash in a sea of extremists, she is negotiating in the Senate Finance Committee with Democrats to put forth a bill that is not only positive but bipartisan. The problem is, for whatever reason, she is not finishing the job. We are hearing nothing about moving closer to a good, solid plan that will lower the astronomical costs of our health insurance.
Stalling serves no purpose other than to kill the bill. The facts will stubbornly remain the facts; the insurance industry will not suddenly stop its desperate lobbying to kill reform, nor will it quit raising our premiums again, and again and again. In fact, the Republican leadership and the insurance industry have as much as said that they are hoping to kill it by letting it die on the vine. It’s time for Sen. Snowe to get to work — for real.
Frank J. Gallagher is the Maine state director for Americans United for Change.