Former senators tackle health issues

By: By KEVIN FREKING
By: By KEVIN FREKING

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Between them, they helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland, investigated the extent of steroid use in baseball and instigated broad changes in veterans' health care.

Now, former Senate majority leaders Bob Dole, a Republican, and George Mitchell, a Democrat, may be facing their biggest challenge to date - reforming the nation's health care system.

The two senators said Wednesday they would be joined by two other former Senate majority leaders, Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican Howard Baker, in crafting a series of health policy recommendations that would be delivered in 2009 to a new president and Congress.

There have been scores of recent efforts in Washington to investigate and fix the nation's health care woes. Yet, the number of uninsured continues to grow, as does the cost of care. Lawmakers and President Bush disagree so much on how to stop those trends that little gets accomplished. Much the same happened under the Clinton presidency.

The four former majority leaders - two Republicans and two Democrats - are betting they can help lead a breakthrough.

"We've got everything but votes," Dole said. "We do have some friends and we do have some ideas."

The senators will each oversee forums on four key pillars for reform: improving quality and value, improving access, ensuring a strong role for consumers, and finding a way to finance it.

They will get technical advice from Dr. Mark McClellan, who recently oversaw the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Bush, and Chris Jennings, former health adviser to President Clinton.

John Rother, director of policy and strategy at the AARP, said the effort, while one of many, has promise.

"What's different is the quality of the leadership and the bipartisanship from the get-go," Rother said.

He said health care reform at the start of the Clinton administration was driven from the inside and the business community did not sign off on it. The senators are taking almost the opposite approach.

Mitchell served as majority leader when President Clinton put forward a plan that guaranteed a generous, minimum package of health insurance to all Americans. He said mistakes were made, but he preferred not to spend Wednesday dwelling on them.

"It's very useful to know one's history, but it's not useful to live in it," Mitchell said.

Dole and Mitchell said they will wait until after the presidential election to make their recommendations. They don't know how long their project will last, but they know the recommendations will have a better chance if delivered next year.

"You fiddle around for one or two years, you know what happens," Dole said. "You've been around here long enough."

Health care has been a more prominent issue among the Democratic candidates this year. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both said they have a goal of providing universal coverage. The biggest difference is that Clinton would require everyone to get health insurance while Obama would not. Clinton says her plan is the only one that is truly universal because people won't get coverage unless they are required to, similar to auto insurance.

Clinton played a key role in crafting the health plan that stalled in 1994.

Meanwhile, Republican candidate John McCain is calling for ending the favorable tax treatment of employer-sponsored insurance. In its place, he would provide a tax credit of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families.

The senators also stressed that they will be the ones responsible for the recommendations. While advisers will provide technical expertise, they wanted to make it clear they will have final say on what's in the package.

Both Daschle and Mitchell are Democratic super delegates. Daschle is supporting Obama. Mitchell is undecided.

The two voiced optimism about the prospects for making major improvements to the health care system, in part because the call for change grows with each passing year, and in part because they have confidence in their ability to fashion a compromise acceptable to all sides. Dole said President Reagan, the conservative icon, advised lawmakers that if they could get 70 percent of what they wanted in an agreement, they needed to take it.

At the same time, they know that finding a compromise could prove painful for all sides.

"There's no easy fixes or it would have been done already," Dole said.

In 2007, the four senators established the Bipartisan Policy Center, an organization dedicated to addressing tough policy challenges in a pragmatic manner. They decided health care was one of the major issues they wanted to tackle. Daschle will lead the project's first health care forum on April 24 in Washington D.C.

The health care project will be funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation awards grants to improve health care in the U.S.

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On the Net:

Bipartisan Policy Center: http://www.bipartisanpolicy.org

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten


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