Looking ahead as a divisive healthcare bill heads for a showdown this fall on Capitol Hill, congressmen representing the Rio Grande Valley outlined their respective goals in a rare public event last week

KGBT in Harlingen held the first town hall meeting on healthcare reform with all three border congressmen, U.S. Reps. Rubén Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, who fielded questions for about one hour.

Congressmen say the issue may be the most important than any in the last 40 years. All said they are looking to make healthcare more affordable, end the “consumer hostile practices” of insurance companies, provide health insurance options, and assist more than 45 million Americans in obtaining health insurance.

“For the people who have no coverage, and in Texas we lead all states by having the largest amount of folks with no coverage at all. We need to make sure we have coverage,” Cuellar said. “At the same time we need to have choice so people can decide on the doctor and hospital they want to see. We need to make sure we address people who have no coverage, and of course the rising costs.”

Cuellar was previously the only congressman to hold a public townhall in person on Aug. 25 where he told attendees that he would like to see changes made to the current House version of health insurance reform legislation. That is, what lawmakers can do about rising costs in healthcare, making choice available to U.S. citizens, how to pay for healthcare, and ultimately coverage for those that currently without any form of coverage.

Hinojosa and Ortiz said as much, and added that comprehensive reform for healthcare must be accomplished as quickly as possible because “the current system is unsustainable.” The U.S. spends about 16 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on healthcare, and without reform would double by 2018, Hinojosa said at the townhall meeting. More than 60 percent of the people in the three Congressional districts go uninsured, according to the congressmen.

“If we can help insure the rest of America we will contain costs by reducing expensive emergency room visits,” Hinojosa said. “We also need to see meaningful insurance reform. We cannot let insurance companies deny coverage on the basis of preexisting conditions. Insurance companies have to offer plans and terms that are reasonable and provide at the very least, a basic level of coverage. Now, we need to see health reform happen.”

A public health option

All three congressmen support some form of a public option for healthcare, which are proposed federal funds individuals would utilize to buy insurance via a government voucher at a hospital of their choice. The public option has drawn fierce criticism from opponents who claim it amounts to a socialized form of healthcare and a greater influence of the federal government on people’s lives.

Hinojosa calls it “a very sensible way” to reduce the cost of health insurance. Ortiz said the public option was created in order to compete with the insurance companies and ultimately “level the playing field” by forcing down rising premiums.

Cuellar said he was looking at a “two-step version” of a public option plan, where the federal government would set benchmarks for insurance companies to lower the costs of premiums within a set amount of time. Within the last eight years, premiums have risen by more than 104 percent, Cuellar said at the townhall meeting.

More than 46 percent of all the healthcare in the U.S. is provided by government, according to Cuellar. That 46 percent amounts to about $1.2 trillion a year on healthcare on behalf of government. About 42 percent is provided by health insurance companies and the other 12 percent comes from out of pocket insurance.

“We have to keep in mind that some people will call that socialized medicine, but if you look at other government run programs like Medicare or Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP) it’s the same thing,” Cuellar said. “We have to be flexible to look at the end goal and how do we cover people and how do we provide competition to the insurance companies so they can lower their premiums without crowding out the insurance companies.”

The rising deficit

It has been forecasted that that healthcare reform could add more than $1.2 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years. The U.S. currently faces an $11 trillion-plus debt, 40 percent of which is owed by foreign countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Japan. More than $250 billion in interest is paid every year, said Cuellar.

“What we need to make sure is that whatever we pass, it’s paid for. If we pass a healthcare reform bill it needs to be paid for,” Cuellar said. “The old days where we would go on a credit card type mentality are gone. We have to get rid of that mentality in Washington and I am not talking about Democrats and Republicans, it doesn’t matter.

Hinojosa said he believes president Barack Obama, who says healthcare reform will not increase the deficit. More than $460 billion of the healthcare bill will be paid for by cutting on fraud and waste, and the rest will come from the 1.2 percent of the population making $350,000 or families of four that earned $800,000 for the year, according to Hinojosa.

Ortiz believes that a proposed healthcare reform could in fact lead to a $6 billion surplus over the next few years.

“We do have a high deficit (but) what happened with the mortgage companies? We paid them billions of billions for golden parachutes,” Ortiz said. “This is something that is going to keep a country healthy. So I think what we need to do is cut the waste. Some people think we say we are going to cut Medicare of Medicaid, but the cuts we are talking about are cuts in waste and fraud.”

In Washington

Congressmen say they now go back to Washington to craft a bill that, in the end may have little or nothing in common with the one currently proposed.

“We need to see health reform happen. In the House of Representatives we are working diligently to reflect our constituencies concerns,” Hinojosa said. “I still have concerns about the draft legislation in the House, and I am worried about the overall cost of the bill. However if we sat for a week, we couldn’t make everyone happy with just one bill. We are going to work hard to make this happen.

Last week’s townhall event was significant because it took place right at the end of the August Congressional recess. President Barack Obama presents his latest major speech on healthcare tonight to a joint session of Congress from Washington.

“We want you to tell us what you don’t like in the bill or what you like in the bill,” Ortiz said. “The bill we may be debating might not even be the bill we are voting when we go back in September but if we can go back and craft a good bill, that would not only do good for our community but do good for the rest of America.”