Health Coverage

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate held what Republican leaders billed as "Health Week". It was a chance for lawmakers to vote on legislation designed to help stem the rising cost of health care coverage. But none of three bills favored by the GOP gained enough support to even reach a final vote on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, 46 million Americans remain without health coverage. Todd Zwillich reports from Capitol Hill as to where Congress goes from here.

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The cost of health insurance premiums for the average family of four now tops $10,000 per year. And the number of Americans with no health coverage keeps going up. Part of the problem in Congress is a deep philosophical divide between the parties on how to fix health care. Most Republicans, led by President Bush, want individuals to use more of their own money to purchase insurance. They say that fosters choice…then competition among health care providers…then lower prices. Most Democrats point to successful public programs like Medicare and Medicaid…They say those programs stand poised to cover millions of uninsured Americans…if only they could be expanded. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn stands firmly with his party on the issue. And the idea of compromise with Democrats does not excite him.

"….Is it through a government run one-size-fits-all-program or is it through individuals making choices for themselves". Zwillich:…"What if it were a little from column A and a little from column B? Cornyn: "..Well, I don't know if that's a recipe for compromise or not."

Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas' other GOP Senator, finds some common ground with Democrats. She says Congress should approve tax credits to give people extra cash for health coverage. But that's where she parts company. She aligns herself with President Bush…focusing on individuals for solutions…and not the government.

"…I think every incentive that we can give people to take care of their own health care coverage, we should do."

In 1993, President Bill Clinton tried to overhaul the health care system in one fell swoop…and the results were disastrous. Republicans and… more than a few Democrats…rebelled. Nothing got done and the president was damaged politically. So was then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton…now a Senator herself. But there may be hope for reform in 2007, says Ron Pollack…director of the liberal-leaning health advocacy group Families USA. Pollack calls the GOP's Health Week a public relations stunt. Next year is when Congress is set to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Pollack says it's a chance to spread basic insurance to 9 million children who are now going without. It's an idea few in Congress are likely to oppose.

"…the reauthorization of this legislation could, if there's serious bi-partisan leadership, result in getting all of those children covered. I think that would be an extraordinary achievement and it's something that we could build on in terms of dealing with the remainder of the problem."

Even if coverage for children succeeds, almost everyone in Congress agrees… solving the insurance crisis for nearly 40 million others…will happen gradually.

For Houston Public Radio, I'm Todd Zwillich on Capitol Hill.