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Breaking it Down

SamFarrNew1Congressman Sam Farr sits down with GT to talk health care reform

Like most of his colleagues, Congressman Sam Farr (D-Calif.) returned home to his district during Congress’ August recess with hopes of talking to his constituents about a variety of national and Central Coast issues. But, like the rest of Congress, he was met by an unusually passionate constituency. Americans are frenzied over health care reform: they want to yell about it, plead for it, praise it and criticize it. They want to ask about it, and they want answers. And so it was that health care reform, and the fiery debate surrounding it, became the centerpiece of Farr’s Town Hall meetings.

He sat down with Good Times the day of his Santa Cruz meeting, the same day President Obama was holding his Town Hall in New Hampshire. Hundreds more people had turned up to Farr’s Monterey meeting the night before than were anticipated, and First Congregational Church, the Santa Cruz forum’s host, promptly moved the event from the multi-purpose room to the main sanctuary upon hearing the news.

But even a giant church couldn’t contain or mollify the crowd. The sanctuary was stuffed with people of all opinions; they spilled out into the aisles and lobby, and gathered on the front lawn, listening to the talk through speakers and peering through the church’s windows. Some wielded signs saying, “Health Reform Now!” and simply, “Thank You!” while others were full of “boos” and heckles; someone stood at the entrance with a poster of Obama with a Hitler-esque moustache.

Needless to say, it was more of a turnout than Farr gets at most Town Halls.

Read on for his talk with GT about the experience, why he is in favor of reform, what is myth and what is fact, and much more.

Good Times: The House and the Senate are working on two respective health care bills that will eventually become one, final bill. What is the overarching crux of these plans?

Sam Farr: The bills’ goals are to do three things: one, to expand coverage to everybody. Two, to cut the costs. Three, to ensure that all these insurance companies have to provide you quality choices.

You have to realize that the federal government, Congress and the White House have been struggling with health care for a good 15 years —ever since the Clintons came in—and we’ve gotten nowhere. We’ve come to what we think we can get. All politics is the art of the possible, and what we’ve learned is that we’ll never get the votes for a single-payer plan. But if we leave it as is, we’ll all go broke.

The political consensus is that you’re not going to radically change health care in America – you’re not going to have a Canadian or French model. But what we can have is an insurance model that insures everybody. That’s what has been decided – we’re building this on health insurance reform. This is not about health care reform, this is about health insurance reform. How you receive your treatment will be the same, it’s how you pay for it that will be different.

There are some big differences between the two bills. What will be compromised when they are negotiated into one bill later this fall?

The biggest compromise is on the public option. The Senate has more of a co-op system that isn’t as strong as the public option. The public option is essentially an alternative insurance plan owned by the federal government.

Is it likely that the public option will be axed so the bill can finally pass?

It’ll only go so far before people will give up and say “if you don’t have that in there, how do you have the oversight on insurance companies to make sure they don’t run away with price?” The public option is what would level the playing field. The public option is to keep the insurance companies honest and I can’t see the whole bill working without it. Obama says he wants it, most members of Congress say they want it, so we’ll see. I think it’ll stay.

National health care is extremely complex–from the background to the finances to the thousands of pages of legislation. Can average Americans ever truly understand it?

That’s a really good question, and I’ve thought a lot about it. I think one of the reasons we are so confused by what we hear is that a lot of people don’t even know much about their own health insurance. I think the starting place is to know what you have, [and to] do your own personal assessment—ask yourself, “Is it covering all my needs?” I think when you start with that, then you are in shape to start listening to what the options are.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions circulating about health care reform?

There are so many out there. There is actually a website the White House uses for this called Reality Check [www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck]. A lot of people have no idea, they are just picking up this stuff without even knowing how their own insurance works. You’ll hear such stupid comments as “Keep government out of Medicare,” [when] the one program that everyone loves because it is there and insures everybody is Medicare.

A lot of the myth is based in misunderstanding of how health is delivered, who has it and doesn’t have it, and I think in a lot of cases [the naysayers] have never had a bad experience and lost insurance.

One big criticism comes from those who believe the government is taking something away from them…

Well, you can begin this whole conversation with how Obama started it, ‘if you like your insurance, there is no change.’ You can keep it. You shouldn’t worry about it.

What role has the media played in all this?

There has never been a very good explanation of what the health care delivery system is in each of our counties. We know a lot more about our delivery of public education through our school districts or universities than we do about how health care is delivered.

We would’ve been much better off with a whole explanation of how the system works now and the problems with the existing system. We would’ve spent months in a national debate analyzing what we have. But, instead, like most parents—you go in and fix it and tell everybody, “here you go, it’s fixed, just trust us.” [Also], the media hasn’t been very good at educating the base so that when the myths came along they’d know they were incorrect.

American health care has been called “sick care,” a system that treats illness with drugs and surgery instead of addressing the roots of the problem with prevention. As you said, this bill is about health insurance reform—not health reform. Is the federal government taking any measures to promote the country’s overall wellness?

It’s happening with this bill. There are incentives to keep patients well. If you tell a patient to lose some weight, eat well, do some exercise, you don’t get paid for that. But if they get overweight and the doctor needs to order a lot of tests, they get paid for it. How do you change that model [so] that [it] would be least expensive to give the savings to the doctors? That’s what this bill does.

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