Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jim McCrery (R-Lou.) met earlier this month to advocate reforming long-term healthcare, an aspect of the healthcare debate both congressmen worry is being overlooked this campaign season.
“This program is about making sure that long-term care is not the after-thought, not the forgotten step-child in the debate,” said Sen. Wyden at the Brookings Institution event.
Both Congressmen expressed concern about the shortage of primary caregivers in the workplace, a problem likely to worsen over the next decade, according to former Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). Kerrey, speaking at the panel discussion, cited statistics that indicated the population of caregivers (usually ages 25-40 years old) will not expand as rapidly as the age group of people who need care (85 and older), resulting in a severe shortage of registered nurses, licensed nurses and others who deliver care professionally.
“I do think in that one area, we are looking at a real short-term problem of considerable magnitude that does not appear to be getting smaller,” said Kerrey. “It appears to be getting larger.”
Inadequate numbers of caregivers in the workforce has proven to be a challenge in Massachusetts, which implemented major healthcare reform measures in 2006. Calling Massachusetts a “mirror of some of the challenges for our country,” Sen. Wyden believes this to be indicative an obstacle the entire nation will face in the near future.
To address this particular concern, Sen. Wyden proposed “re-configur[ing] some of the job training programs that are now funded by the federal government to put a sharper, new focus in the healthcare field, both in terms of long-term care and primary care: the challenge that you see in Massachusetts.”
“Reconfiguring” the federal government funds translates into the legislation the Senator introduced last year along with Republican Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) called the Healthy Americans Act. According to Sen. Wyden, the Act would encourage privately-financed long-term care and allow people to have choices in the private sector market.
The Healthy Americans Act would eliminate the current employer-based health insurance system and require Americans to purchase their own insurance in hopes of “taking the burden off employers,” according to an article Sen. Wyden published in The Hill newspaper last year. Employers would raise wages in order for employees to afford insurance, which individuals would then purchase from premium-free state or regional insurance pools.
This drastic departure from the status quo generated criticism from Sen. Wyden’s fellow Democrats, and according to a Washington Post article, the effect of adopting Sens. Wyden and Bennett’s legislation “would be to blow up the existing health insurance system.”
Yet the Healthy Americans Act has curiously amassed support from Democrats and Republicans alike. Sixteen senators are currently co-sponsoring the bill, including: Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Mike Crapo (R-Idah.), Minority Whip Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Bill Nelson (D-Flor.) and Joe Lieberman (ID- Conn.).
The reason for the widespread support, Sen. Wyden states, is because the bill calls an “ideological truce” and melds together Republican ideals of valuing market forces and Democratic principles of promising insurance coverage for everyone.
But while Sen. Wyden and Rep. McCrery stump for solutions for long-term care, whether it be the Healthy Americans Act or other legislation, election-year politics continues to hamper their efforts to reap further bi-partisan support on the issue. They note congressional action and leadership is hard to come by this close to November.
“All of the elected members of the House and Senate are concerned about the political ramifications of getting out front, because both parties have, through the years, used these [healthcare] issues, one way or the other, to scare people and to move votes at election time,” said Rep. McCrery.
Still, the congressmen remain optimistic about chances for reforming the healthcare system, especially in terms of long-term care, in the coming months when they will be working with a new congress and a new presidential administration.
Sen. Wyden said, “While we do not know who the next president is going to be, we know for certain that the next president is going to be [a] United States Senator and in the United States Senate, there are a whole bunch of people on both sides of the aisle who want to work with that new president.”