January 8, 2009

Whitehouse Shares Stories of Rhode Islanders Affected by Our Broken Health Care System

MR. WHITEHOUSE: Today Senator Daschle has come before the as come before the HELP Committee for his confirmation hearing as our Secretary-designate of Health and Human services. I know that all of our colleagues and friends in the Senate found it moving and wonderful to see the distinguished chairman of that committee, Senator Kennedy, back in his chair, leading that hearing. We are all delighted to see him back at work here in the Senate and we are delighted to see Senator Daschle back with us in the Senate in this exciting new capacity.

We know that every American deserves health care he or she can afford. Senator Daschle knows that to do that we need basic, systemic reform that will improve the way health care is delivered in this country. Senator Daschle has already brought forward ideas like the creation of a federal health board, that have contributed enormously to the health care reform debate, and I hope very much he will pursue those ideas further at HHS. His nomination and President-elect Obama’s creation of a new White House Office of Health Care Reform emphasizes their serious commitment to solving this bedeviling problem. Senator Daschle will bring distinguished, thoughtful leadership to the crisis in our nation’s health care system.

Health care reform is the signal challenge facing our families, our economy, and our government. And I wanted to take a few minutes today to speak about this great challenge and the urgent need for action. We all know the system is broken. The evidence lies all around us in my state of Rhode Island and across the country. When a lost job is frightening, not just because it means lost income, but because it means lost health care, our health care system is broken. When sudden illness strikes and insurance won’t cover the costs, our health care system is broken. When families have to wait to see a doctor until it’s too late ‘cause they have no health insurance to pay for the visit, our health care system is broken.

We see the evidence of the broken system in the staggering cost of health care in this country. The United States spends 16% of our GDP on health care. That’s about twice what our major industrialized competitor nations spend. The annual cost of the system exceeds $2 trillion, and it’s expected soon to double. Family health emergencies have been the most common cause of personal bankruptcy, and businesses large and small struggle under the weight of ever-increasing health insurance costs. There’s more health care than steel in Ford’s cars, and more health care than coffee in Starbucks’ coffee. And yet for all of that money, what do we get? We still leave 46 million Americans uninsured. 46 million wrenching stories of health care foregone, of personal misfortune, even lives lost. And that doesn’t even include the experiences of our nation’s underinsured, or small business owners struggling to provide health insurance, or the many Americans who just receive poor-quality health care.

President-elect Obama is committed to reforming this broken system and he’s taken swift action to engage the American people in a national conversation about what’s wrong and what we can do to fix it. Last month he and Secretary-designate Daschle asked people to hold meetings in their communities to discuss health care reform and to share their ideas. In the end, there is no better way to understand the deep failures of our health care system and the very real pain, frustration, anxiety, and anger that it causes than to talk to the people who’ve experienced it firsthand.

Over the past few years, in community dinners that I have around our state, in my office, as I travel around, many, many Rhode Islanders have reached out to me to share their stories and to urge that we work urgently to repair this broken system. Madam President, I’d like to take a moment and share a few of those stories.

A mother in Narragansett, Rhode Island, shared a story about her 20-year-old son who suffers from severe bipolar disorder and relies on therapy and expensive medications to remain a valued and productive member of his community. He’s too old to be covered under her family health insurance plan and his preexisting condition makes buying insurance on the individual market impossible, prohibitively expensive. So what did they do?

This mother and her family came up with a surprising solution. They enrolled her son at the Community College of Rhode Island so that he could participate in the student health insurance plan. He takes the absolute minimum course load in order to continue to work, but he remains a student because it is less expensive to pay for college tuition than it is to pay for individual health insurance. Any parent with a child in college knows what a burden this Rhode Island family is bearing to ensure that their son gets the basic treatment he needs to stay healthy.

I also heard from the proud owner of a small bookkeeping and tax preparation business in Warwick, Rhode Island. She has worked tirelessly to raise five sons, go back to college, and finally she’s become her own boss. And yet, despite all of her effort and all of her success, she wrote me to plead for reform. She wrote this: “I spend over 50% of my income just to have health insurance for my husband and myself. The premiums are over $1,000 per month, even with very high deductibles. My employees need health insurance also, but I am unable to provide them with any benefits because of the poor economic conditions.” Her employees are like family to her, like in so many small businesses. And it breaks her heart that they’re uninsured. Yet she says that she simply will not be able to keep her doors open if she tried to contribute toward their benefits.

In the midst of this economic downturn, and particularly in Rhode Island where our unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation, this story shows all too clearly how closely linked are the tasks of reforming our health care system and strengthening our economy.

Our health care system manages to fail even those who believe themselves to be covered. A woman who lives in Woonsocket, and who has health insurance, and was always careful to pay her bills on time, assumed that she would be covered in the event of an emergency. Why not? She was current, she paid her premiums, she had insurance. But not too long ago, she suddenly had to have her appendix removed. Despite having health insurance, she left that hospital with a $10,000 bill. She’s currently working for a temp service and she has no idea how she can pay off this debt. She’d recently bought her own home, a longtime dream and an accomplishment in which she took great pride. And now, because of the fine print of that health insurance policy, she risks losing the home that she worked so long to afford. As this Rhode Islander learned in the hardest way possible, health insurance often ends up insuring very little.

It’s on behalf of these Rhode Islanders and so many others that I urge my colleagues to come together to support health care reform that will lower costs and improve the quality of care for all Americans. We must improve the way we deliver health care by promoting quality, implementing health information technology, and investing in preventing disease. We must and will protect existing coverage when it is good. We must improve it when it is not. And we must guarantee health care for the 46 millions of Americans, 9 million of whom are children, who have no health insurance at all.

We see ourselves now in darkening and tumultuous economic times, and yet looking beyond the immediate economic perils we face, there is a $35 trillion unfunded liability for Medicare that is bearing down on us. It is bearing down on us because our population is aging, because people get sicker as they age, and that makes them more expensive. Unless we figure out in this chamber a way to stop time, unless we figure out a way in this chamber to reverse the aging process, unless we figure out a way in this chamber to make elders have healthier lives and bodies than younger people, this is inevitable. It is coming at us, and we have to prepare.

In order to prepare, we have to reform the health care delivery system. We are committed, as democrats, to making sure that every American has health insurance coverage. But it is not enough just to bring everyone into the boat. If you had a boat in the ocean and people swimming around it, and to save them you needed to bring them into the boat, you would do that. But if the boat itself was sinking, if the boat itself was on fire, just bringing everybody into the boat is not an adequate discharge of your duties. It is also important that you repair the boat, that you get it steaming forward, that you make sure it is safe for the people who you bring into it. That means reforming our health information technology infrastructure so that every American can count on an electronic health record. So that when you go to see your doctor, you don’t have to fill out that clipboard one time after another, when at the same time you can sign onto Amazon and not only do they know who you are, they know what you’ve bought and they’ve got suggestions for you based on your buying habits. There is no excuse for our health care system being back in the 1950’s as the rest of the economy moves forward into the 21st century.

It requires improving the quality of health care and it requires investing in prevention. We dramatically under-invest in prevention and quality. There are market failures that causes those things to happen. They are reparable, and in addition to the cost savings, it’s estimated that 100,000 Americans die every year — 100,000 Americans die every year because of avoidable medical errors. It is simply not tolerable to allow that to continue, particularly where it is a win-win situation, where improved quality of care means lower cost.

And finally, the third leg of the reform – in addition to health information technology and quality and prevention reform – is that we have to reform how we pay for health care to align the price signal that we send by those payments with what we want from health care. Until we do that, we will be constantly struggling uphill against our own financial message.

This is all doable. This is all so doable, but it will take time. These are complex matters. We will have to make adjustments. The adjustments will take time. It’s a dynamic environment in which we’ll have to make course corrections along the way. That means that we need to start now. We do not have the luxury of time on our side. If we do not get started on a thoroughgoing health care delivery system reform now, then the alternative will be times that are even darker and more tumultuous than we find ourselves in right now.

I see the very distinguished chairman of the Budget Committee – a man who is an eloquent voice on the dark and tumultuous times and the risks we face from the current situation – on the floor. So I will gladly yield at this point and I thank the chair and the presiding officer.