Politics & Government

Begich, Murkowski give mixed responses to health care legislation

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Begich said he's optimistic about the long-awaited health care legislation made public Wednesday by the Senate Finance Committee.

"The good news is, it's out, now we can get to Phase 2 of the process. There's some really good common ground," the Alaska Democrat said, adding that he hasn't read the 223-page proposed legislation yet, but plans to take a close look en route to and from Alaska this weekend.

Reflecting the partisan split on health care reform, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski offered a more tepid assessment of the proposal released Wednesday.

Like Begich, Murkowski said she hadn't yet read the legislation or been briefed on it yet by the health care experts in her office — she and many people relied mostly on an 18-page summary of the $856 billion proposal released Wednesday morning by the committee.

She did say, though, that she spoke Wednesday to Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., one of the committee's so-called "Gang of Six" working for the past three months toward a bipartisan health care proposal. Based on that conversation, Murkowski said, she had some concerns that the legislation is moving too quickly, a point echoed by other Senate Republicans. It's expected to come in front of the committee for discussion on Tuesday.

"Knowing how long this group of six members has taken to get through all of the issues that they have in front of them ... I just have a hard time thinking that the Finance Committee can push out something in one week," Murkowski said. "So it's going to be interesting to see how hard and fast they're going to be, sticking to an arbitrary timetable."

She also remains concerned about the cost of the program, saying Wednesday that she fears the expense could cut into existing Medicare budgets — something Begich disputes.

Begich said he likes that the proposal is less expensive than previous versions from other Senate and House committees. He said there are things he remains concerned about, including taxing high-end private benefits to pay for health care and what it means for Medicare reimbursement for Alaska.

Regardless, doing nothing is too expensive, Begich said.

"If we don't do anything, the cost to small businesses is unacceptable," he said.

Both senators have heard from just about everyone with an interest in seeing comprehensive changes to health care. An estimated 1,000 people turned out to one of Murkowski's town halls last month. And Begich said that each small business owner he meets with mentions the cost of health care. He also hears from advocates of government-run plans as well as many seniors who fear the potential changes to Medicare. Many people express concerns about the costs, Begich said.

"They're all pretty loud," he said. "And all are adamant about elements."

Murkowski said she'd like to see the Senate take a "step-by-step approach, focusing on issues that we all can agree on." Those include doing away with pre-existing condition restrictions on insurance, eliminating yearly and lifetime insurance limits and seeking to reduce costs by reimbursing for quality and not quantity of services, she said. She would like to see more about tort reform — a focus she believes could cut costs by eliminating costly defensive medicine practiced by doctors worried about being sued.

But Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee that drafted its own version of a bill this summer, said she'll keep a close eye on what happens in the Finance Committee next week.

"All of us are going to be watching really carefully what happens in the Finance Committee," Murkowski said. "We all need to be pretty plugged in to the discussion, the proposals. Because, if in fact that bill moves through, then the game plan is to go to the floor. So we better know."

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