ANCHORAGE - U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Tuesday told an Anchorage crowd that critics of health care reform, the summer's hottest political topic, aren't helping the debate by throwing out highly charged assertions not based in fact.
"It does us no good to incite fear in people by saying that there's these end-of-life provisions, these death panels," said Murkowski, an Alaska Republican. "Quite honestly, I'm so offended at that terminology because it absolutely isn't (in the bill). There is no reason to gin up fear in the American public by saying things that are not included in the bill."
Murkowski's analysis of the health-care reform measures was delivered to a Commonwealth North crowd of about 130 at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. The nonpartisan group focuses on public policy issues.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin stirred up controversy last week by suggesting on her Facebook page that people like her parents and Down syndrome son might have to appear before "Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."
Experts who have reviewed the various pieces of legislation, which run for hundreds of pages, say there's no such provision.
Murkowski said it's essential the nation's health care system be reformed to improve access to care, boost existing cash-strapped programs such as veterans' health care and control escalating costs.
Still, she said, Congress should slow down and not rush into bad legislation. And critics shouldn't inflame the debate with lies, she said.
"I'll be honest with you," Murkowski said. "There are things that are in this bill that are bad enough that we don't need to be making things up."
When U.S. Sen. Mark Begich gave a speech on health care Monday, sign-waving protesters gathered outside the Dena'ina center. The raucous crowds didn't come back to challenge Murkowski. Among other things, the protesters demanded that Begich face off with them in town hall meetings. He said he has already done so in Anchorage and Juneau, and plans to hold another in Fairbanks.
Murkowski said she's holding four town hall meetings on health care. An aide said the meetings start Thursday in Fairbanks, then will be Aug. 20 in Anchorage, Aug. 28 in Wasilla and Aug. 29 in Soldotna.
"I look forward to that input and if it's spirited, that's the way it is," Murkowski said. "This is an issue that impacts all of us."
She voted no on a health reform measure that in July passed out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, of which she's a member. She tried to get through an amendment that set a floor for payments to providers under a government-run plan. In Alaska, she noted, seniors on Medicare have trouble getting seen by a primary care doctor because of low government reimbursement rates. But her amendment failed on a 13-10 party-line vote, she said.
She also tried, unsuccessfully, to exclude the smallest businesses from being penalized if they failed to provide health insurance.
"As we look to the impact, imposing additional taxes and penalties on the backbone of small businesses, particularly in a downturn in the economy as we are experiencing, this is exactly what Congress ought not to be doing," Murkowski said.
She was able to get through amendments to ensure that Alaska Native groups could tap into grants created through the legislation. Murkowski said those were technical changes. But Begich said Monday that some of Murkowski's successful amendments were more than technical - evidence the Senate effort is bipartisan.
Alaska's senators also differ on whether reining in the costs of medical malpractice lawsuits would pay for reforms. Murkowski said tort reform would cover the costs, citing a Stanford University study that said doctors practice defensive medicine that contributes to significant unnecessary health expenses. But Begich on Monday said that savings from any tort reform would be a small part of the equation.
They also have divergent views of whether people could keep their existing health coverage if they want to do so. Begich says they could, under the versions of health reform that have passed committees.
Murkowski said that's not necessarily true. A House bill creates a system that could shift 88 million Americans from private insurance to a government-run plan, she said.
The best hope for reform, Murkowski said, is a bill being worked on in the Senate Finance Committee. Three Democrats and three Republicans are working through the August recess on it.
News reports say that committee's bill likely will include a provision to ensure no one is denied health insurance because of preexisting medical conditions, subsidies to help individuals buy insurance, and taxes on high-end health benefits. But it wouldn't include Obama's desired public health insurance option.
The cost may be about $900 billion over 10 years.