US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Harkin Remarks at Families USA 2011 Health Action Conference

Thursday, January 27, 2011Justine Sessions (202)-224-3254

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, made the following remarks on the benefits of health reform at the Families USA’s 16th Annual Health Action Conference in Washington, D.C. today.  Harkin was the first speaker at the conference, which is expected to draw more than 800 health care advocates from around the country.

“I see a lot of good friends, here, this morning.  A special greeting to two Iowans: Carrie Fitzgerald of the Child and Family Policy Center, and Peggy Huppert of the American Cancer Society.

“You know, I skipped my coffee this morning.  I mean, who needs caffeine when you’re going to stand before the fired-up folks who did what Presidents and Congresses going back to Teddy Roosevelt tried and failed to do: Ensuring access to affordable health care for all Americans!

“Let me give credit where it is due:  It was members of Congress who cast the votes for that historic law.  But I look across this room and I see the determined, dedicated, unstoppable advocates who made it possible!  Thank you, FamiliesUSA!  

“For nearly a quarter century, the members of this great organization lobbied . . . you demonstrated . . . you spoke out . . . you educated . . . you fought.  

“You never gave up.  And you won!

“But do you know what?  To your great credit, I don’t see any foolish “Mission Accomplished” banners hanging in this room.  

“You know as I do:  The law has been passed, but the battle is not over.  In this town, there are no final victories!    

“We all remember William Buckley’s conservative motto.  He said that the role of conservatives is “to stand athwart history yelling stop!”

“In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt passed Social Security, providing basic retirement security for every American.  Republicans fought it bitterly.   And 75 years later, they are still trying to undo it!

“In 1965, Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare, ensuring seniors’ access to decent health care.  Republicans fought it bitterly.  And 45 years later, they are still trying to undo it!

“Well, here they go again!  

“Think of all the challenges our nation faces today, especially with the economy.  But what is the Republicans’ No. 1 priority?  What is their obsession?  It is repealing health reform . . . nullifying the Patient’s Bill of Rights . . . and taking away health insurance from more than 30 million Americans!  

“Congressman Steve King of Iowa is leading the charge – and setting the tone.  He is demanding that the Republican Party sign what he calls a “blood oath” that they will include a repeal of health reform in every appropriations bill this year, even if it leads to a government shut down!  

“By the way, notice that the Republicans are no longer even pretending to offer a realistic, comprehensive alternative.  They used to talk about “repeal and replace.”  Now their focus is mostly on ‘repeal.’  As always, the Republican approach to health reform can be summed up in five words:  Pray you don’t get sick!

“So make no mistake: The fight to provide access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans has only just begun.

“The same ideologues who came up with the Big Lies about “death panels” and “pulling the plug on grandma” are rolling out their latest campaign of misinformation.

“I have come here, this morning, to tell you that I am ready for this fight.  I am determined to do everything in my power to protect this important new law against any attempt to weaken or repeal it.  

“And as I look around this room, I see that I’m not alone!  

“At 10:00 this morning, I will convene the first in a series of hearings in the HELP Committee focusing on the Affordable Care Act.  Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will report on all the ways that the law’s consumer protections – the Patients’ Bill of Rights – are already improving the quality and security of coverage for tens of millions of Americans.  We’ll also hear from ordinary Americans who are benefiting from the new law.  

“So, friends, yes, we are ready for this fight.  And the good news is that, this time around, the dynamics of the debate have shifted.  Just as I long predicted, as people learn more about the great things in the Affordable Care Act – benefits and protections that are now guaranteed by law – support for health care reform is growing steadily.    

“A year ago, we were bogged down in the messy, frustrating politics of passing the bill.  This time around, the law is the law, and what’s at stake is crystal clear:

“Are we going to put the health insurance companies back in the driver’s seat – once again free to discriminate based on preexisting conditions, free to cancel your policy when you get sick, free to cut off payments?

“Are we going to revoke access to health insurance for more than 30 million Americans?

“Are we going to add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit by wiping out all of the savings in the Affordable Care Act?

“I want to emphasize that last point about the deficit reduction in the Affordable Care Act.  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that provisions in the new law will reduce the deficit by $143 billion in the first decade, and by nearly a trillion in the second decade.  Those are real savings, certified by CBO – and they would be wiped out by repeal.  

“Nor can we allow their attacks on the ‘individual mandate’ to stand.  Republicans claim that this is somehow an ‘assault on freedom.’  Well, it is certainly an assault on the freedom to go without insurance, show up at the emergency room, and stick other Americans with your health care bills!

“The individual mandate is just common sense – that’s why so many Republicans supported it in the past.  Senator John Chafee’s reform bill in the early 90s included an individual mandate; it was supported by Republican Senators Grassley, Hatch, and Lugar.  More recently, the Wyden-Bennett bill, including an individual mandate, was supported by Senators Alexander, Crapo, Corker, Graham, and Grassley.  And, as we all know, the individual mandate was a critical piece of Mitt Romney’s health reform in Massachusetts.   

“As I said, it’s just common sense.  By eliminating free riders and putting everyone in the risk pool, we keep rates down for everyone.  And it’s the only way that people with preexisting conditions are not left out in the cold.

“When we join together, we have more freedom. When everyone is covered and no one is left out, we enhance liberty.  Health reform is all about freedom – freedom from the fear that if you get sick, you can’t afford to see a doctor . . . freedom from the fear that a major illness will lead to financial ruin.  These are the practical freedoms that really matter to Americans.

“Friends, over the next few days, you will be mapping out strategies for protecting the Affordable Care Act.  The message to our fellow Americans must be loud and clear:  This new law has important new benefits and protections:  Don’t let the Republicans take them away!

“Nearly half of non-elderly Americans have some type of preexisting condition, like high blood pressure, arthritis or heart disease.  The new law outlaws the denial of coverage based on preexisting conditions.  Are we going to let them take this away?

“The largest health insurer in California used technicalities to cancel the policies of women who got breast cancer.  The new law outlaws the outrageous practice of canceling policies when people get sick.  Are we going to let them take this away?

“The new law prohibits insurers from imposing lifetime limits on benefits.  Are we going to let them take this away?

“The law allows parents to keep adult children on their policies until age 26.  Are we going to let them take this away?

“Now, as we remind people about the great things in the new law, some will counsel that we only talk about the consumer protections – what’s in it for middle class Americans who already have health insurance.  They will argue that most Americans don’t care about provisions in the law extending insurance to tens of millions of people who currently don’t have it.  

“I couldn’t disagree more strongly!  Americans do care about the uninsured.  And it is disgraceful that the Republicans want to revoke access to health insurance for some 30 million Americans.

“We need to remind people of the devastating human cost of repeal.

“Some time back, my office attempted to help a woman from Des Moines, Joan Billings, who had an advanced case of breast cancer.  This is personal with me, because I lost my two sisters to breast cancer.

“When Joan contacted my office, she had lost her health coverage, and to pay medical bills she had exhausted her savings and put up for sale the house she had lived in for the last 30 years. Tragically, Joan died before we could do much to help her.  She was 54 years old – a good, decent person who worked hard all her life . . . but, now, she is one more casualty of our broken health system.

“She is one of nearly 45,000 Americans who die each year, in part, because they don’t have health insurance.

“So – you bet – we should and must make the moral case for health reform.  With this landmark law, we are ensuring – at long last – that every member of our American family has access to quality, affordable health care as a right, not a privilege!

“Friends, this is an achievement worth fighting for!

“Now, before I close, I want to make one more point to all my progressive friends in this audience.  

“We all know that, in order to pass the Affordable Care Act, we had to make painful compromises on issues such as the public option.

“As chair of the HELP Committee, I want to remind you that that Affordable Care Act was the opening act in health reform, not the final act.  When Social Security and Medicare were originally passed, they had significant gaps in coverage.  Subsequent Congresses built on the foundation of those original reforms.

“Likewise, today, I think of the current health reform law as something of a ‘starter home.’  It is not the mansion that some might want.  But it has a solid foundation, giving every American access to quality, affordable coverage.  It has an excellent, protective roof, which will shelter Americans from the worst abuses of health insurance companies.

“And – best of all – this starter home has plenty of room for additions and improvements in the years ahead!

“But for now, our focus must be on standing up for this great starter home in the face of those who want to dismantle it.  And, once again, I am counting on you folks.  I need you to devote the same energy and passion to protecting the Affordable Care Act that you devoted to passing it.

“And by the way, we should not be defending the Affordable Care Act.  We should be on the offensive! We should be making the Republicans defend their plan to undo the benefits and protections in this law.  We should make them defend their willingness to put tens of millions of Americans back out into the cold – without any coverage, or once again vulnerable to the despicable abuses of the health insurance companies.

“I am asking you to speak out at every town hall, city council meeting, and state legislative hearing you can.

“Mark my words: Americans will not allow their hard-earned protections and benefits to be taken away.  

“The choice is to go forward, or be dragged backward.  I believe the great majority of people want to go forward.  

“So thank you, friends, for your great work – over so many years.

“Thank you for never giving up.

“Together, we passed a great, historic reform.

“Together, we will take the offensive against those who want to destroy it.  

“And together, in the years ahead, we will build on that starter home!”

“Nearly half of non-elderly Americans have some type of preexisting condition, like high blood pressure, arthritis or heart disease.  The new law outlaws the denial of coverage based on preexisting conditions.  Are we going to let them take this away?

“The largest health insurer in California used technicalities to cancel the policies of women who got breast cancer.  The new law outlaws the outrageous practice of canceling policies when people get sick.  Are we going to let them take this away?

“The new law prohibits insurers from imposing lifetime limits on benefits.  Are we going to let them take this away?

“The law allows parents to keep adult children on their policies until age 26.  Are we going to let them take this away?

“Now, as we remind people about the great things in the new law, some will counsel that we only talk about the consumer protections – what’s in it for middle class Americans who already have health insurance.  They will argue that most Americans don’t care about provisions in the law extending insurance to tens of millions of people who currently don’t have it.  

“I couldn’t disagree more strongly!  Americans do care about the uninsured.  And it is disgraceful that the Republicans want to revoke access to health insurance for some 30 million Americans.

“We need to remind people of the devastating human cost of repeal.

“Some time back, my office attempted to help a woman from Des Moines, Joan Billings, who had an advanced case of breast cancer.  This is personal with me, because I lost my two sisters to breast cancer.

“When Joan contacted my office, she had lost her health coverage, and to pay medical bills she had exhausted her savings and put up for sale the house she had lived in for the last 30 years. Tragically, Joan died before we could do much to help her.  She was 54 years old – a good, decent person who worked hard all her life . . . but, now, she is one more casualty of our broken health system.

“She is one of nearly 45,000 Americans who die each year, in part, because they don’t have health insurance.

“So – you bet – we should and must make the moral case for health reform.  With this landmark law, we are ensuring – at long last – that every member of our American family has access to quality, affordable health care as a right, not a privilege!

“Friends, this is an achievement worth fighting for!

“Now, before I close, I want to make one more point to all my progressive friends in this audience.  

“We all know that, in order to pass the Affordable Care Act, we had to make painful compromises on issues such as the public option.

“As chair of the HELP Committee, I want to remind you that that Affordable Care Act was the opening act in health reform, not the final act.  When Social Security and Medicare were originally passed, they had significant gaps in coverage.  Subsequent Congresses built on the foundation of those original reforms.

“Likewise, today, I think of the current health reform law as something of a ‘starter home.’  It is not the mansion that some might want.  But it has a solid foundation, giving every American access to quality, affordable coverage.  It has an excellent, protective roof, which will shelter Americans from the worst abuses of health insurance companies.

“And – best of all – this starter home has plenty of room for additions and improvements in the years ahead!

“But for now, our focus must be on standing up for this great starter home in the face of those who want to dismantle it.  And, once again, I am counting on you folks.  I need you to devote the same energy and passion to protecting the Affordable Care Act that you devoted to passing it.

“And by the way, we should not be defending the Affordable Care Act.  We should be on the offensive! We should be making the Republicans defend their plan to undo the benefits and protections in this law.  We should make them defend their willingness to put tens of millions of Americans back out into the cold – without any coverage, or once again vulnerable to the despicable abuses of the health insurance companies.

“I am asking you to speak out at every town hall, city council meeting, and state legislative hearing you can.

“Mark my words: Americans will not allow their hard-earned protections and benefits to be taken away.  

“The choice is to go forward, or be dragged backward.  I believe the great majority of people want to go forward.  

“So thank you, friends, for your great work – over so many years.

“Thank you for never giving up.

“Together, we passed a great, historic reform.

“Together, we will take the offensive against those who want to destroy it.  

“And together, in the years ahead, we will build on that starter home!”

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