- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2009

Congressional Republicans insist they have plenty of ideas for reforming the health care system from tort reform to expanding availability for insurance coverage to tax credits for small business and low-income Americans to buy private insurance. The problem, they say, is their solutions are not being taken seriously as Democrats push their own plans.

Several Republicans waved one of their three legislative proposals in the air at several moments during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress as proof that they are offering ideas.

Republicans in both the House and Senate are also urging Democrats to slow down the reform process and start over, citing the fear and unhappiness evident among voters in numerous town-hall meetings during the August congressional recess.

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“Most Americans wanted to hear the president tell [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and the rest of Congress that it’s time to start over on a common-sense, bipartisan plan focused on lowering the cost of health care while improving quality,” said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., Louisiana Republican, and a cardiologist, in the official Republican response to Mr. Obama’s address.

Mr. Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill have repeatedly accused Republicans of trying to block their health care reform plans without bothering to offer a solution of their own, labeling them the “Party of No.”

But some Republicans say trying to fashion a single, overarching solution to such a vast, complex issue is part of the problem.

“We don’t think a comprehensive approach to this is the way to go,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said ahead of Mr. Obama’s Wednesday night address to a joint session of Congress, downplaying the Democrats’ proposal to overhaul the health care system in one large piece of legislation. “I personally think a better way to go at it is to do some of these bill individually, and target the problems.”

Republicans say the Democratic majority and the White House have largely ignored their health care reform ideas. Not a single Republican has voted for the health care reform bills that have passed out of four House and Senate committees so far.

However, three Republican senators are still working with a fifth, the Senate Finance Committee, to come up with legislation that would get bipartisan support.

One of the top issues favored by Republicans is medical malpractice reform. They argue that the skyrocketing costs of liability insurance is prompting doctors to leave the field, driving up costs and driving down the quality of service. Mr. Obama acknowledged the problem in his address, but Republicans doubted he was serious about finding a solution.

“All the soaring rhetoric in the world can’t improve the bill,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican. “I would be astonished if the Democratic Congress with its trial-lawyer base included anything about medical malpractice reform in a comprehensive bill. Now if he’s proposing we pass a comprehensive health care overhaul, then talk about medical malpractice reform in the future, that’s less than tossing a bone.”

Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and physician, said he was encouraged by the president’s speech but is waiting to hear specifics.

“I want to see the details,” he said.

Rank-and-file Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced three major bills to reform the nation’s health care system. The proposals include issuing tax credits to help them buy private insurance, reforming Medicaid and expanding prevention and wellness measures.

The Republican Study Committee, a bloc of more than 100 conservative House Republicans, Wednesday issued a list of 35 bills introduced by its members touching on some aspect of the health debate.

But Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have yet to endorse any of the comprehensive reform bills. House leaders released a draft reform proposal of their own in June, but haven’t followed up with an actual bill, leaving them open to Democratic charges they are not offering solutions.

“I think the ball is in the president’s court,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

“It is frustrating, but the American people are wise to it,” Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican and chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said of the Democrats’ accusations.

“They know there are other plans out there,” said Mr. Price. The Democratic attacks “decrease their credibility and [increase] further the lack of trust the American people have in the president” and top congressional Democrats.

There are a number of issues on which both parties agree. Insurance industry reforms, such as eliminating the cap on lifetime coverage and a ban on denying patients with pre-existing medical conditions, are popular with lawmakers in both parties.

Mr. Obama, in his congressional address Wednesday night, said the emerging health care reform bill he favors incorporates both Democratic and Republican ideas.

He embraced several Republican-inspired ideas in the speech, including a pilot program aimed at curbing medical malpractice lawsuits — an issue that Republican lawmakers have stressed in recent weeks. He said his administration would launch the initiative on its own and will not seek to include the program in the bill.

The president also reached out to his 2008 Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, endorsing the creation a high-risk pool that would help people with pre-existing conditions afford huge medical bills.

But at the same time, Mr. Obama hinted broadly there were still some in the minority party not interested in compromise at any level.

“I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it,” the president said.

• Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

• Jennifer Haberkorn can be reached at jhaberkorn@washingtontimes.com.old.

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