Senator Begich listens to Juneau's health care woes

Congress doesn't have the political will for government-run health care, junior sen. says

Posted: Friday, July 03, 2009

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, received a standing ovation before even speaking Thursday at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, and it's not surprising considering his big election victory in the capital city last fall.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

But that didn't stop 150 people from also spending an hour and a half of a beautiful summer evening grilling the state's junior senator on his support for health care reform at Alder Gate Church in the Mendenhall Valley.

Begich braced the crowd for some unwelcome news: The biggest health care reform many want isn't going to happen, at least not soon.

"Let me be very frank with you," Begich said. "You will not see single payer pass this Congress, the political will is not there."

Begich said he's working with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who is the Senate's biggest advocate of a government-run health care system, on a bill to expand community clinics. Sanders is now supporting smaller health care reforms, Begich said.

"Even he's recognized it's difficult to get there," Begich said.

Begich said that at a similar meeting held recently in Anchorage, 80 percent of 250 people supported a public option for health care.

There is broad agreement that costs must be reduced, access to care increased and health outcomes improved.

Begich was confronted with a variety of views on what to do, ranging from adopting alternative medicine, importing pharmaceuticals, boosting wellness efforts and cutting back on insurance paperwork and medical industry profits.

Begich assured everyone that he understood the issues they were facing, often from his own experiences as an entrepreneur or as mayor of Anchorage.

His wife currently runs a small business that struggles to provide adequate health care for employees, while he's got insurance paperwork from a son's doctor visits that he's dreading filling out.

Retired teacher Russell McDowell said insurance companies require excessive paperwork for claims, forcing people to spend a great deal of time on filling out forms.

"I want to see something done on health reform so that type of workload is not forced upon every citizen," he said.

Begich said he still hadn't filled out the reimbursement paperwork for his son Jacob's treatment, and probably wasn't going to do it until right before the six-month deadline.

Sam Trivette of Retired Public Employees of Alaska said Safeway has discovered that it's in the company's interest to pay for employee wellness, and that healthy foods and exercise will reduce insurance costs.

"Any professional in the area of medicine will tell you that if you do prevention and wellness you will have savings in the long run," Begich agreed.

Juneau naturopathic Dr. Kristin Cox urged support for alternative medicine in any changes made to the system.

"Really, really strongly would like you to advocate and lobby for naturopathic medicine to be included in these reforms," she said.

Begich said he understood that issue as well, as his bad back had him seeking out new treatments.

Among the improvements Begich said he was working on were improvements to the Veteran's Administration health care system, while at the same time trying to get other parts of the health care system to copy VA's innovations that are working.

One of the current problems the health care system currently has, he said, is that those with coverage subsidize those without at about $1,000 a year per person he said.

"We have to create a fairness to the system," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 23-2250 or

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