Health reform has a new messenger: Biden

With Obama tied up at the UN, Vice President Biden is out front on health reform. On Wednesday, he reassured seniors in suburban Maryland about their Medicare coverage.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
White House health adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle (l.), Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (c.) and Vice President Joe Biden, answer questions from seniors about the proposed health care reforms on Wednesday, at Leisure World in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“I do foreign policy, I don’t do healthcare,” Vice President Biden told an audience at the Brookings Institution earlier this month.

But it turns out Mr. Biden does do healthcare – especially in a week where President Obama is out front on foreign policy. With the health reform debate building as the Senate Finance Committee hammers out its bill, the White House appears determined to pound home its message on a daily basis. Biden also reportedly plans to get more involved in engaging his former Senate colleagues, both Democratic and Republican, on the issue.

On Wednesday, the White House dispatched Biden to Leisure World, a suburban Maryland retirement community, to reassure seniors about their Medicare coverage.

“Nobody is going to mess with your benefits,” said Biden, who was joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House health adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle. “All we do is make it better for people on Medicare.”

Mr. Obama plans to cover $500 billion of the cost of health reform by squeezing out waste and fraud from Medicare, but many seniors still worry their coverage will be cut. The Medicare audience is politically crucial. Seniors vote.

In conjunction with the Leisure World event, the White House put out a list of benefits it believes seniors would see from reform. Among them: reduced cost of prescription drugs, in part by closing the gap in Medicare drug coverage known as the “donut hole”; making preventative services free; and ending what the administration considers overpayments to private insurers.

Biden called for tighter regulation of the health insurance industry in a speech Tuesday before the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. The vice president highlighted a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation that showed health insurance premiums continue to rise each year faster than the rate of overall inflation. The report showed that premiums have at least doubled in all but seven states over the last decade, while wages have increased 38 percent and inflation 28 percent.

Last year, health insurance premiums rose by 5.5 percent, while prices dropped by 0.7 percent.

Fewer than half of all states required a review of health insurance premium increases in 2008, Brian Deese, of the White House’s National Economic Council, told reporters before Biden’s speech.

In his speech, Biden reviewed changes the insurance industry would face under health reform: Insurers would be barred from excluding customers with preexisting conditions. They would also be required to limit customers’ out-of-pocket expenses and not be allowed to terminate coverage of a patient who gets sick.

In return, new mandates that the uninsured carry coverage would hand the industry millions of new customers. So while per-person profit would decline, the rise in numbers of insured would mean more paying customers.

“I want insurance companies to make money….,” Biden said. “But I also want them held accountable.”

Soaring health insurance premiums hurt the competitiveness of American businesses internationally, Biden added.

“To make up for higher premiums, you know what companies have to do,” he said. “They either pass those premiums on to their employees, a larger share – they pass them on to their customers, making their products even less competitive.”

Health insurance industry representatives maintain that increases in premiums simply reflect the rise in the cost of healthcare, not a grab for greater profits.


Click here to read more about the Senate Finance Committee's efforts to wrap up the healthcare reform bill.


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