Obama needs to keep pushing on health care, Gregoire says

WASHINGTON — President Obama needs to keep the pressure on Congress to quickly approve health care reform, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said Tuesday, adding that if Congress doesn't act it could be years before there is another chance.

In the nation's Capitol to testify before a congressional committee on climate change and green jobs, Gregoire said in a brief interview, "We need comprehensive (health care) reform this year. I agree with the president. He should push Congress and set deadlines."

Obama has been pushing the House and the Senate to approve bills before their August recesses in a couple of weeks and then iron out the differences when they return in September. Republicans, however, insist that there is no rush and that reforms need to be thoroughly discussed.

Gregoire said that the Republicans are just trying to kill a reform bill through delay and that Obama and the Democrats need to persist or they will lose momentum. The governor said the reforms have been talked about and studied since the Clinton health care plan fell apart 15 years ago.

If Congress doesn't act before the end of this year, it won't next year because of the election, she said.

"If doesn't happen this year, then we have lost the opportunity," said Gregoire, "I mean that literally."

Gregoire said she has several problems with the bill that emerged from committees in the House that need to be fixed. One would expand Medicaid eligibility, which provides health care to low-income people. The states pick up a share of the Medicaid costs, and expanding eligibility would expand a state's cost when they are all facing budget problems, Gregoire said.

The proposed House bill also fails to change a reimbursement formula for Medicare funding that punishes the state because it has long had a more effective health care system than other states, Gregoire said.

While the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has finished work on a bill, a more crucial bill from the Senate Finance Committee is still a work in progress.

Gregoire, in a later conference call with reporters, acknowledged the difficulty in finding a way to pay for the reforms.

Along with other governors, Gregorie said she told Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., that a proposal that would require states to issue $100 billion on bonds to help pay for the reforms was a non-starter. Some states are barred from issuing bonds for operating expenses by their constitutions, and in others it would be politically difficult, she said.

At the request of Baucus and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Gregoire and a small group of governors are putting together a paper on a reform that could save an estimated $60 billion. Currently, some people receive medical care through both Medicare and Medicaid. Ending this overlap could result in a major savings, she said.

But Gregoire emphasized the quickest way to hold down health care costs would be by creating a better health care delivery system, suggesting one possibility would be to do away with the doctor's fee-for-service system and replacing it with one that emphasized quality care over volume.

Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's green jobs and renewable energy subcommittee, Gregoire said Washington state had hoped to create 25,000 green jobs by 2020, but in the past several years had created 47,000.

"Our green jobs are growing much faster than predicted," she said.

Gregoire said the state's residents embarked on a green energy future when they passed an initiative in 2006 requiring renewable energy sources provide 15 percent of major utilities' power by 2020. But even before that, in 1996, the state began providing tax incentives for wind and solar energy. Now, there are tax incentives for landfill gases, fuel cells, biomass, ocean energy, geothermal, anaerobic digestion and waste heat energy.

The state has gone from nearly zero wind energy in 2001 to being the fifth largest wind energy producer among the states, Gregoire said. In addition, plans were unveiled two weeks ago for the largest solar energy generation project in the U.S. near Cle Elum.

"Washington state is not known for its sunshine," Gregoire said.

The state continues to explore other options, including talking with California and Oregon about building a highway designed specifically with electric cars in mind from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, she said. The highway would include spots where people could recharge the batteries in their cars or even swap their batteries for new ones that had already been charged.

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