U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski criticized Democratic plans to change health care before a crowd of hundreds Thursday night at a town hall meeting in Anchorage, while President Obama scrambled more than 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., to regain momentum for the effort.
"We can go ahead and promise you a card and say you're now covered. But if we can't give you the care that you need, if you can't get into see a doctor, we can't help you," Murkowski told a crowd gathered at the Dimond High School auditorium.
Almost 700 people jammed the room to talk health care. More listened by speakers in the lobby overflow area.
Most audience members who spoke at the event shared her skepticism of the Obama administration's plan. "Every part of the government I deal with is inefficient down to the post office. Why would we want the government to be in charge of health care in the United States?" said Tom McGrath, to applause.
It was a much different crowd than the town hall meeting on the same subject that Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich held in Anchorage in June. Most of those in that audience indicated they wanted some sort of a "public option" for health care as an alternative to the nation's existing system that's based on private insurance.
Begich defined "public option" broadly, but it's generally considered to mean a government-run insurance plan that competes with private insurers to lower premiums and expand coverage.
People at the Alaska town halls were civil, in contrast to the often-hostile Lower 48 health care town hall meetings, where angry protesters have confronted lawmakers. "I think it's a great thing that Alaskans can come together and we don't look like any other state, yelling, screaming, bickering," Brendan Carpenter said Thursday night.
Many supporters of revamping health care did turn out for Murkowski's event. A Dimond High School student received applause when she said that people weren't upset about the nation spending huge amounts for war. But they are now angrily objecting when it's for health care, she said, and as the generation saddled with the deficit, "I'd rather pay off the money where the debt went to help people rather than killing them."
But some in the audience said the government was taking far too much of a bite at once with such a huge overhaul. Others said that the plan smacked of socialism and that's not the kind of country they wanted to live in.
Darrell Keifer challenged Murkowski's position, saying a "hidden tax" on insured people rivals the cost of income tax. It's the increased price for insurance that results from the costs of the health care system in dealing with the uninsured, he said. High health care costs lead to foreclosures and bankruptcies, he said, and that hurts all Americans.
"Would you support a public option if it saved the overall economy in the long run?" he asked.
Murkowski said there already is government-run health care, including Medicare, that doesn't work well for Alaska. The federal Medicare program pays providers about two-thirds as much as private insurance, and a recent study by the University of Alaska Anchorage found that only 13 of 75 primary care doctors surveyed in Anchorage were willing to take new Medicare patients.
She said health care reform is needed but Medicare is a broken system and shouldn't be used as a basis for a new plan.
Dr. Ilona Farr, a family practice doctor in Anchorage, said that low reimbursement rates are driving doctors out of business. What's needed, she argued, are health savings accounts free from government bureaucracy, and allowing doctors to write off as business losses their expenses in dealing with patients who can't afford the accounts.
The Alaska town hall came on the same day that Obama launched an offensive in Washington, D.C., to rally support for his revamp of the system.
One caller to a radio program asked the president which elements needed to be included in a health care plan. He listed four points: reducing the cost of health care, protecting consumers from insurance abuses, providing affordable coverage to uninsured Americans and not adding to the deficit. He sought to tamp down reports that he was backing away from his push for a public option, but also did not say it was a deal breaker if Congress didn't include it in any plan it might approve.
One man at the Alaska event said he's heard criticisms from Republicans but not solutions. Murkowski, asked her view of what to do, said reform must include reasonable and meaningful incentives for health care providers. She said more needs to be done to get people into the profession, because without providers who will see patients, the insurance doesn't do much good.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344. The Associated Press contributed to this story.