Bipartisan Health Care Reform?

~ Jill Zimmerman

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a breakfast meeting with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as part of the annual Families USA National Grassroots Meeting: Health Action 2009.

After an interesting and informative town hall style discussion, the meeting ended and everyone moved to leave the room. I suppose I moved more quickly than others, and somehow I ended up walking out the door in lockstep with Senator Grassley. Suddenly, we—that is, Senator Grassley and I—were surrounded by press! Not being a conference attendee, I was without the big red bag and name tag that marked me as one, and the press seemed to assume I worked for the Senator. So, for a moment I simply enjoyed the status and proximity to listen to Senator Grassley answer questions.

Question #1: “How will you vote this afternoon on SCHIP?”

Oh no. Not that question.

Let’s back up a moment.

As Ranking Member (previously the Chairman) of the Committee on Finance, Senator Grassley has often played an important role in the health care debate. Last year with Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), Chairman (previously Ranking Member) of the Committee on Finance, Senator Grassley worked tirelessly and against party lines to gain Republican support for a bill to reauthorize and expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP).

Without Senator Grassley’s efforts, that SCHIP legislation would have never passed. In fact, it passed twice! Both times with an incredible bipartisan majority. And for that, health care advocates will always be thankful. However, President Bush vetoed both S-CHIP bills, and Congress ended up simply passing an extension of the program until March 2009.

Now, S-CHIP reauthorization and expansion is back up for a vote. But this time, a few things have changed. With a large Democratic majority in both the House and Senate, and a Democrat in the White House, Congressional leadership decided to add to last year’s version of the bill a provision to provide health coverage for legal immigrant children and pregnant women.

And with that magic word—“immigrants”—bipartisan support fizzled.

So, Senator Grassley’s answer to Question #1 made it clear that he would not be voting for SCHIP that afternoon.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (H.R. 2) had already passed in the House on January 14th by a vote of 289-139. And, as expected, with bipartisan support, it passed the Senate and now awaits President Obama’s signature.

As wonderful and exciting as health care coverage for more kids is, we still have a long way to go to reform our ailing health care system and to cover the 46 million people who went without health insurance in 2007. To achieve real, comprehensive health care reform, we’ll need Congressmen like Senator Grassley to reach across party lines and work together.

In the Torah, we learn of the building of the Mishkan, or the temporary sanctuary used while traversing the desert, in which the entire community comes together (Exodus 25:1-27:19). Like the ancient Jews in the desert, we must come together as a community to rebuild our health care system.

I ducked out of the crowd of press people after Senator Grassley answered that first question, but I can only hope that Question #2 was “Will you work to create bipartisan health care reform in the 111th Congress?” and that the answer was a definitive, “Yes.”

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