Information always has a soothing effect on me, and I'm feeling much calmer after tonight's White House conference call. Obama advisor David Axelrod and White House Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle took the time to answer our questions.
I started by asking about the recent maneuver to block imported drugs. I said it was "shameless," not only because Candidate Obama ran on the issue of allowing Americans to buy cheaper drugs from Canada, but because the FDA already does site inspections in those same plants they were calling unsafe. (Basically, in order to sell any drugs in America, your manufacturing facility must meet the same standards as an American plant.)
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that they would be submitting an HHS bill in the near future - they'd "just this week" gotten funding to address any safety concerns, but more importantly, to start putting an infrastructure in place to import drugs.
My other question (as a former reporter who frequently covered insurance corruption) was about using state insurance commissioners to enforce new insurance regulations.
I said that in many states, insurance commissioners were pretty much owned by the local insurance companies, and I was skeptical as to whether making them the enforcers would actually work.
DeParle said HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius, a former state insurance commissioner, was not one of "those" commissioners, and she would be overseeing state departments. Sebelius already met with state insurance commissioners, she said, and having found a wide discrepancy in authority from state to state, got language inserted in the bill that would give them additional powers. (DeParle noted that the West Virginia commissioner didn't even have the authority to see if insurance companies were solvent.)
DeParle said this was the widest expansion of insurance regulation in 20 years.
David Axelrod also chimed in, noting these changes were part of the reason why the insurance industry has opposed the bills so stringently. If this was a giveaway, he said, they wouldn’t be lobbying so hard to defeat the bill.
I have to give it to Axelrod on this: Without even a little exaggeration, I'd say that standardizing state oversight is probably the insurance industry's worst nightmare. They've always taken advantage of a hodgepodge of weak state regulations, sprinkling generous political contributions along the way to buy off state legislators. So this bill is really what you want from federal regulation: Overriding weak state laws that trample consumers.
Joan McCarter from Daily Kos wanted to know if the annual cap on expenses was left in the Senate bill. DeParle said they were working with CBO and Senate on improvements, and said a lot of what people thought was happening was due to “misinformation.” She said CBO said to put the qualifier “no unreasonable limits” in the bill language so they could score it, and said they're working with the American Cancer Society in an attempt to make an enhancement to the system. She said at the very least, it will ban annual limits.
Open Left's Chris Bowers wanted to know if the White House wanted the bill to go to the conference committee - or did they support "ping-ponging," which would essentially mean the House would accept the Senate bill without changes. (DeParle said no, they want to get it to the conference committee.)
In response to a question from MyDD's Jonathan Singer, Axelrod talked about having a daughter with a chronic illness while he was a reporter in an HMO plan. "I spent tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket that I didn’t have. The stress was extraordinary. This bill attempts to fix the system on the basis of the human costs on patients and their families." He called it "wrongheaded to suggest these bills aren't infinitely better than anything we have today. This is an extraordinary moment on which we can win."
He added that he "doesn't question the motives" of the people in this debate on all sides.
Huffington Post's Nico Pitney brought up the president's declining poll numbers. "Is there something in the context of this health care debate that will reverse this trend?" he asked.
Axelrod got into the nuts and bolts of polling, saying there was a "great gap between a naked question they’re asked and when you actually describe what’s in the bill."
He said these are "very hard times," and that once the economy picked up and people realized the benefits to them, "It will impact very positively on people."
"In this town, we’re all obsessed by polls." he said. "It’s not election day, the elections are far off and I assure you the numbers the president is looking at are people who can’t get insurance because of pre-existing conditions."
He talked about Obama watching his mother worry as she was dying of ovarian cancer, with her insurance company claiming she had a pre-existing condition.
"We're not here to look at our poll numbers, admire them and put them up on a shelf… we’re here to do something," he said.
Gina Cooper asked about when we'd see the president fighting for his vision.
DeParle responded, "He's fighting to get this done. You don’t know how many meetings, how many phone calls, how many hours he’s spent on this thing. I don’t mean to be chiding of you, but please appreciate how difficult this is."
Axelrod closed by saying he "appreciated your passion," but the White House would reactly strongly to any "misrepresentation of fact."