Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) is a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, a committee with jurisdiction over health care legislation. Grijalva is also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). The CPC supports inclusion of a strong public option as a part of health care reform.
Today, the Congressman generously granted me an interview.
Kathleen Wells: As a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, do you believe the President's speech last night was strong enough in supporting the public option as part of health care reform?
Congressman Grijalva: I think the expectations were such that the fact that it was mentioned and it was a component that had to be part of the reform is important. It keeps us in the fight. I think it would have been disastrous if he would have not mentioned it and basically given it away. Then our struggle, both internally and externally, would have been that much more difficult.
But having said that, by not defining what he believes the public option to be, he [President Obama] leaves it open for this struggle to go on. Many of us wanted it to be more definitive. It must be based on Medicare, Medicare-like, Medicare network, no trigger, no co-opts as a phony replacement for a public plan. That didn't happen. But it keeps our momentum going and obviously we are going to continue to push the point of what we believe a defined public plan should be and why it has to be part of the package in order to pass Congress.
Kathleen Wells: So, the pledge that you signed for a robust and strong public option?
Congressman Grijalva: It's active.
Kathleen Wells: It's active. You are still holding firm to that pledge?
Congressman Grijalva: I am, and I think there's been some slippage; no question
Kathleen Wells: Can you be more specific when you say "slippage?"
Congressman Grijalva: There are some members that now say a trigger is not the death knell for a public plan. I disagree with that. But generally speaking, I think the Progressive Caucus has grown up and I think we are very committed to the fact that we have to have that.
Kathleen Wells: This trigger mechanism is off the table for you entirely?
Congressman Grijalva: Yes. It hasn't been defined, but the way it's been defined by others it is dependent on what the private insurance companies are doing. Do they satisfy the needs of the uninsured, working families and working poor and if they don't, then it will trigger a public option. Well, you know, if working off government subsidies, of course there is going to be an effort. If the gauge is going to be when the insurance companies self-certify themselves that they have passed this, that they can't meet the needs of the American people (which has already been proven and I don't know why we need another five years to find that out), then that would trigger the public plan. Well, that effectively says it won't happen.
That's my problem with the trigger, fundamentally, is that it is dependent on whether or not the private insurance companies do their job. So, you are delaying something for more than five years. You are actually delaying it for 10 years and waiting. And even if it were triggered at the end of 10 years, I think our system would be in such stress that a public plan would not have a chance to develop or get strong or to really compete with these companies.
Kathleen Wells: The President's speech also mentioned exchanges. Can you elaborate on that?
Congressman Grijalva: Everybody would have to go into a health exchange where there would be choices available, primarily dominated by the private insurance companies. We want the public plan to be part of that choice, the exchange for the American people. The insurance companies are fine with the exchange as long as they dominate it. In most places, the concentrated enrollment is one or two companies, three at the most, four that have the market place. In Alabama, there is one private insurance company that has 90 percent of all the enrollees.
Kathleen Wells: The President did mention that in his speech.
Congressman Grijalva: Yes, and so without a public option, how are you going to compete? How are you going to control premiums? You aren't going to be able to do that and we want the public option to be part of that health insurance exchange that Americans can have access to.
Kathleen Wells: Explain to me the characterization of the public option being a government take-over.
Congressman Grijalva: That's one of the disappointments that we should have known from the play book of the past -- that this was going to be socialized medicine, and government control of your insurance and health care. It's a tried and true tactic, up to this point, to misinform, develop a sense of fear among the American people of what is pending is bad for them. Politically, it's Congress not wanting to take the risk. That's the play book and it's getting played again and we should have known that we are going to have serious opposition here. It's nice to talk about bipartisanship and consensus, but it takes two parties to be part of a consensus process. Right now, Democrats seems to be conceding and yet no consensus is occurring. I don't anticipate we will ever have a real bipartisan bill and so Democrats might as well buckle down and start to craft together what is going to be best and take control of it.
Kathleen Wells: Senator Baucus' Finance Committee just recently released a draft of his bill and it has a mandate for individual coverage, but it doesn't include a public option.
Congressman Grijalva: See, first of all, the Baucus plan is so tainted by the conflict of interest of many of his staff and committee staff that are former WellPoint, and many insurance advisors and lobbyists. I consider that a tainted plan. That plan is essentially written by industry. So, the fact that it doesn't have a public option doesn't surprise me. The fact it talks about additional cuts in support for poor people in terms of Medicare and other things doesn't surprise me at all.
It's the Health Committee one that I'm looking at and what comes out of there and what we can get out of the House and then go into conference. I think it is a mistake for House leadership to wait for the Senate to do whatever they are going to do, because that is going to be a much lower denominator than what we are going to do. We have to set the bar high and if we are going to negotiate with the Senate, negotiate from a position of a higher bar and a stronger public option [rather] than wait around for the Senate to do what I anticipate they will do -- it will be a very weak product.
Kathleen Wells: Do you think that strategy will be implemented?
Congressman Grijalva: That's what we are urging our leadership to do. The House should take care of the House's version, which I believe will be stronger. And then when we negotiate with the Senate, we do it from a position of strength, as opposed to negotiating at the lowest common denominator.
Kathleen Wells: During his speech last night, the President stated that in his health care reform plan undocumented immigrants would not be covered. Yet, Congressman Joe Wilson yelled out that the President was lying. Can you give us your response, especially in light of the fact that you are a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as the Congressional Progressive Caucus?
Congressman Grijalva: First of all, you have to set the backdrop for Congressman Wilson yelling out, "You lie." [It was] a very bushleague action on his part. But the backdrop is that part of the political strategy in defeating health care reform is to blame everything on illegals. The undocumented are not the reason why the cost of health care is so high -- it's American citizens and permanent residents that have no insurance that are driving that cost up. It is insurance companies that set premiums so high on American citizens without consideration. So, to blame, scapegoat that population has been a political tool that has been used by the Republicans now for eight years running. Until we do immigration reform the right way, it is going to continue to be the scapegoat and the kid you beat every time you have a political issue.
The fact of the matter is there are some not good things in this [bill]. The double jeopardy issue to me is very important. If you are a legal, permanent resident -- [meaning] you went through the whole process and adjusted your status, so that you are legal and permanent, you must still wait five years before you can receive any benefits. That, to me, is double jeopardy. You are taking a person that has gone from undocumented status to a permanent legal status and then you are making them illegal again by making them wait five years. I think that is wrong. It is more an anti-immigrant fervor that is out there than it has anything to do with health care.
So in throwing everything they can at this health reform, it is inevitable that you are going to have the issue of abortion thrown at health reform. You are going to have the issue of undocumented thrown at health reform. You are going to have the issue of socialism thrown against health reform. It's a play book that is used over and over again. It's disingenuous, to say the least, unethical and not based on any truth, any data or any fact.
Kathleen Wells: How should immigration reform look?
Congressman Grijalva: Comprehensive. Deal with the legalization process for the people that are here, that are clean. By clean, I mean legally clean. No criminal records, no problems, working and can justify that; the unification of families so we don't split families and security is always going to be part of it. If we are going to have reform, let's make it comprehensive. Let's not piecemeal it. This issue is not going to go away and it is going to continue to be a social fabric issue or this country is going to be more and more divisive, as time goes on. We just saw in the health care debate what we are talking about by Wilson's outburst.
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