WASHINGTON — They may disagree on the details, but after President Barack Obama's speech, all three of Alaska's representatives in Washington were in alignment Wednesday on what they want to see come out of the health care debate: more affordable and accessible health care for more Americans.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he was pleased with the president's emphasis on holding insurance companies accountable by refusing to sign a bill unless it bans insurance companies from dropping people with pre-existing conditions. "I wanted to see those issues in a strong manner, and I think he did that," Begich said.
Begich also said he felt as though the president was skilled at debunking some myths about what the reform proposals mean — including one myth spread by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has insisted despite consistent rebuke that the health care plan could lead to so-called "death panels" that will sit in judgment on the elderly and infirm. Such talk "is a lie, plain and simple," Obama said during his speech, without mentioning Palin by name.
"There are a lot of myths out there," Begich said. "If he didn't debunk the 'death panel' last night, whoever is still thinking that's true is off his rocker."
Begich said he appreciated what he saw as the president's acknowledgment that the battle over whether to include a public health insurance option would not interfere with holding insurance companies accountable.
"What I heard is that it was still out there on the table for consideration, but it was not worth losing health care reform over," said Begich, who on Thursday will be among a group of moderate Democrats meeting with the president on health care, where Begich said they intend to zero in on the costs of the plan.
For Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, her greatest concern with the president's speech was that he may have made it sound too easy "to pay for all of this."
"If it was easy to wring out all the waste, fraud and abuse and get close to a trillion dollars in savings, I sure think we would have been doing that mighty hardily right now," she said. "I'm a skeptic on that. I wish there had been more detail to it. So much of this really comes down to how you work to reduce those costs. What are we facing as costs as a nation? That's where you hear some of that anxiety out there."
Murkowski said she got an earful from Alaskans during the August recess, when she held health care town halls in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Wasilla and Soldotna — the Anchorage event alone drew more than 700 people and was aired on C-SPAN.
During those meetings, Murkowski reiterated some of her must-haves, beginning with one the president emphasized: banning insurance companies from cutting off people with pre-existing conditions.
"There are very clearly some areas where we in bipartisan agreement," she said. "I'm hopeful that what he gave us tonight will be incentive to move forward in the weeks ahead."
She also was impressed with the president's call to action, when Obama spoke of the American character, and the "recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand."
"I thought his comments toward the end of the speech were powerful comments, the character of the country part," she said, although she added that it's not enough to make empty promises that can't be fulfilled. "He didn't delve into how we get to the point of where we're paying for quality, not quantity."
Republican Rep. Don Young typically does not attend such speeches, including State of the Union addresses, but this week he stayed away for personal reasons. Young's wife died Aug. 2, and he remained in Fort Yukon with his family, "decompressing from the month's events," said spokeswoman Meredith Kenny. He will not return to Washington, D.C., until this weekend.
Young was among 10 Republicans targeted this week by the Democratic National Committee, which released a television commercial entitled "No Friend to Seniors." The ad accuses Young and other Republicans of attempting to scare seniors into thinking health care reform means cuts to Medicare benefits for seniors.
In a statement on Obama's speech, Young said that he supports the goal of making health care more accessible and affordable, but opposes the way the Obama administration and leaders in the House of Representatives are doing it. He will oppose any plan that includes a public option, if the public option is based on the existing Medicare system.
"What they are proposing will do nothing more than put a political band-aid on a very deep wound," Young said in his statement. "Any decent health care bill needs to focus on accessibility, portability, and affordability; the proposal put forth by the Administration does none of these."
Young has signed on to two separate health care bills that include provisions that make the Medicare reimbursement rates more equitable and allows poor families to buy health insurance with advance tax credits.
He also supports allowing small businesses and individuals to deduct the cost of premiums, and allowing coverage to be portable when someone changes jobs. Like many Republicans, he backs a proposal has called for expanding insurance pools by allowing people to buy coverage in states other than those where they reside.