Chellie M Pingree

Health Care - Oct. 13, 2009

Chellie M Pingree
October 13, 2009— U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC
Congressional floor speech
Print friendly

Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. I am pleased to be here on the floor tonight with a gathering of my freshman colleagues. We thought we would spend our hour talking about the very important issue of health care.

As everyone knows and as everyone sees in the newspapers pretty much every day, that is the topic on the mind of Congress and, certainly, on the mind of America. I know, for me, it's the issue I hear most about back in my district when I'm having a town hall meeting or am meeting with constituency groups--doctors, nurses, practitioners of any kind--to talk about their concerns about health care. It's the number one thing people bring up to me.

Certainly today, being from the State of Maine, the Finance Committee in the Senate--which isn't the House, but it's also going to eventually coordinate it with us--was voting out their bill. My colleague from Maine, Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE, voted in favor of the health care bill, making herself the first Republican to vote affirmatively on some of the proposals that we have before us. While she and I may differ on some of the policy issues, we all represent the State of Maine, and she spoke today about the great urgency of passing a piece of health care legislation. That is certainly of great concern to us, so I am glad we have an hour to talk a little bit about it.

There is such a range of issues to talk about. I know I want to mention a little bit about some of the concerns about insurance companies and the importance, at least for me, of voting for a plan that has a very robust public option. Before I turn it over to one of my colleagues, I just want to tell a couple of quick stories about the issues that we have been facing in the State of Maine.

Like a lot of States, we have a very small number of insurance companies. Many States find that 70, 80, sometimes more than 90 percent of their market is all taken up by one insurance company. I'm sure Representative Tonko from New York has some stories to talk about this as well and just about the issues that we have about why we need more competition in the market.

Interestingly, in Maine, our Attorney General has just entered into a very fascinating case with Anthem Insurance Company. Anthem is one of the few companies that does business in the State of Maine, and they recently asked for a rate increase. I think they asked for 18 percent. The State granted them 11 percent. They turned right around and sued the State of Maine, and said, You know, if you're not going to give us what we need, we're going to have to sue you on this. I'm just looking here through my papers.

I have some interesting information about just how much profit this particular company is making, and I will come across it in a minute here.

[Page: H11273]

What really struck me as profound is that many of my constituents' stories--as I mentioned, I run into constituents in the grocery store, everywhere I go, and certainly people have been contacting our office about the challenges of health care reform. Many of our constituents' stories are about the dealings that they have with their insurance companies. As somebody said to me recently, you know, insurance is great until you need it, and then 9 times out of 10, you find out that your company isn't there when you need it. Now I want to tell a couple of stories about what I've heard from my constituents.

Representative Tonko, perhaps you'll want to weigh in on this conversation. Then we can go back and forth a little bit about what we're hearing.


Will the gentleman yield?

I just want to weigh in with a couple of thoughts about that. You're going through the litany of why we think it's so important to reform the insurance market, and so many of the things that you talk about are, again, the very things that I hear about from people. The issue I heard someone say the other day was ``job loss.'' Job lock. You know, people will say to me, I am ready to start my own business, but I don't dare leave my job because I can't go without the safety net, and I certainly couldn't afford to pay for these health care costs at this moment in time.

I want to read you a little bit that I heard from a constituent recently, someone from York County, which is the southern part of my district, who told the story that very much echoes what you were just talking about.

He was self-employed. He had a business he'd been doing for 10 years. His wife worked for a small nonprofit, and the nonprofit wasn't able to afford her health care coverage, so they did what a lot of people do, I find. They went to Anthem, which is the insurance company that we've been talking a lot about in my State, and their family of three--they have a 2-year-old daughter now--got an insurance policy that cost them $400 a month, but it also had a $15,000 deductible.

Now, I hear about so many people who have this $15,000 in their deductible. It's really just kind of insurance for keeping your home. As you mentioned, it will keep you from going to bankruptcy court.

So their $15,000 deductible actually amounted to a $30,000 deductible for their family. Basically, they just hoped that nothing would ever happen, because they didn't have the cash to pay the $15,000 or $30,000 in medical bills that they'd have to pay to get up to their deductible.

He told a story about how, when his daughter was born--their newborn baby--there were some complications, so they thought, well, at least we've got this insurance because, as we know, infant bills in the hospital can go very high if you have to be in the neonatal unit or anything else. Well, it turned out that his wife and daughter both had some medical issues, and they had gotten a specific rider when they'd gotten the health care plan, but it turned out that it only covered their daughter and not his wife. By the time they brought their baby home, they were $15,000 in the hole because of issues that had come up with his wife during childbirth, so they had to take money out of their 401(k), and they had to borrow money on their credit card. They are just hoping that nothing else happens because they'd have to still pay another $15,000 in their deductible.

Well, that's a great example of people who think they have health care coverage. They thought they got a special rider to make sure that pregnancy, childbirth--everything--was covered. It turned out it really wasn't there when they needed it. I don't know about you, but I hear about so many different people who go to look at their insurance policies and realize that there are all kinds of hidden issues or their insurance companies just say, ``Sorry. We don't cover you.'' That's just something we have to stop.


Thank you for adding your thoughts. Certainly those are themes that we hear about a lot. One is this important point that every single day in this Congress there are people working on one or another aspect of this bill, trying to put together all of the good ideas, trying to make sure that we come to some form of consensus over the variety of opinions.

But your mention of the issue of young people who don't have coverage is a story that we all hear about often, and many of us who had our own children in their twenties have known that tragic moment when they turn 23 or they end college and they are no longer covered by your plan. And, as you said, in today's job market, many young people don't have coverage or work for a company that doesn't find themselves in a position to cover them. So it is increasingly an important issue, and one I think the people are trying so hard to work on.

Also this issue that others have already brought up tonight, I am also a small business owner, and the cost of coverage--I heard a statistic in the State of Maine that the average cost of covering your employees is about equal to the profit you make in your small business. And that is lucky for some small businesses, if they can even make as much profit as they are paying out every year in employee coverage.

As you mentioned, it is important to make sure you cover your employees. Many companies can't afford it, and often you lose employees to somewhere else where they can go to get that coverage. So you might have a great worker, and you may lose them if you don't find a way to keep them covered, which is getting near to impossible with the rising cost of insurance, as we have talked about many times.

And I often think about my own State. We're 38th in per capita income. The economy is struggling. Our unemployment rate is right up there with a lot of other States in this country, and we're just hoping that we can start to bring it down. But the fact is, if we could pass universal access to health care coverage, it would be the single biggest change to my State's economy and I certainly think this country's economy.


I just want to bring up one tidbit, and then I know that my colleague from Ohio has a couple of things to say. But when I first came to the floor tonight, I was talking a little bit about Anthem in our State which is actually owned by WellPoint. And I don't want to make any particular insurance company the villain, but often we're told, you know, why don't you just leave the system alone, yet day after day we hear about insurance companies that cancel your insurance and a variety of other things. And I had just been mentioning a case that's going on in the State of Maine.

Maine was asked by Anthem for an 18.5 percent rate increase, and the State said no, something about 11 percent might be more moderate, just trying to hold down the cost for small business and individuals. Well, Anthem immediately sued the State and said they needed that full amount to earn a reasonable profit. Of course, WellPoint last year earned $2 billion and paid $1 million in bonuses to many of their executives in our State.

So you've got the people in our State, 38th in per capita income, many of whom have recently lost their jobs, saying, Wait a minute. I can't afford this increase, yet I can't afford to be without health care coverage. And here's a company that earned $2 billion last year telling me they can't live without making more in profit.

Well, this system just doesn't seem to make any sense to me. I mean, it's one thing when you're talking about making Rolls-Royces or fancy diamond rings. Maybe you deserve to make exorbitant profits, and we don't need to meddle in the economic system there. But this is about basic health care coverage for individuals, and that's really what we're charged here to do--make sure that everybody, whatever their condition, whatever their age, has that kind of health care coverage.

And I have to really hand it to our Attorney General, Janet Mills. She was on CNN the other day talking about how we're going to fight this. We're not going to take this, and, you know, that's not a position our State should have to be in. That's not a position individuals should have to be in, you know, just to get their basic health care coverage.

Speech from