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Voices of Power Transcript: Jay Rockefeller

Friday, October 16, 2009 9:02 AM

LOIS ROMANO: Welcome, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, a longtime leading voice in favor of health-care reform. Thanks for joining us today.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: Thanks a lot, Lois.

ROMANO: You are a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, which voted out yesterday their version of the bill.

A month ago, you said you could not support this version of the bill because, among other things, it didn't have a public option, government-run option.

What changed your mind?

ROCKEFELLER: What changed my mind was, one, that we tried hard. I put up my version of the public option in the committee for a vote and it got eight votes. That's called "not enough."

And then, Chuck Schumer put up his, which was softer, and it got ten votes. Not enough votes.

So, I then immediately went on to the next process, because the process becomes important in this.

Right now, Teddy Kennedy's old committee and Max Baucus and Harry Reid in the White House are meeting and they're putting together a bill, and it could be an entirely new bill. And I have strong hopes that a public option is going to be in that bill, and if it is, it will take 60 votes to remove it.

Kind of fun, isn't it? We're the ones that have always been trying to get 60 votes, now they'll have to get 60 votes to remove.

You know, Harry Reid will, you know, make the final decision on it.

But I know the president is for it. I know Chris Dodd is for it. Max Baucus didn't speak against it. He just talked about the need to get 60 votes. 'I can't do it because I have to get 60 votes.' Well, if they do it there, he doesn't have to get 60 votes. So, we'll get it.

ROMANO: So, you figured you had a good shot at it.

ROCKEFELLER: Yeah, I think -- and because all the other committees' [bills], including Teddy Kennedy's old committee, [now] Chris Dodd's committee, and all three House committees, all had a public option in it.

ROMANO: That's interesting. So --

ROCKEFELLER: So, I wasn't going to cut off that process. So, I went back on my word just a little bit.

ROMANO: You thought it needed to move forward.

ROCKEFELLER: Yeah, because that was the place where you could get the public option, plus other things.

You know, there was a lot in that bill. I voted for that bill very reluctantly, because there was a lot that was wrong with it and there's a lot that needs to be improved, and you have this next process of the big shots putting together their mark, and then you have the Senate floor, and then I'm a "conferee." So then you'll have the House, the House is more liberal than the Senate. That's a problem in the Senate because that may cause some moderate Democrats to move -- you have to be very careful about it, but I'm optimistic about the process, and I think the president will sign the bill by Christmas -- hopefully this Christmas.

ROMANO: There were months of private, quiet meetings, bipartisan meetings, on this committee that excluded some senators that had had a history with health care like yourself and some others, and in the end it produced one Republican vote.

Was it worth it?

ROCKEFELLER: No, to be honest. I mean, I adore Olympia Snowe and I don't want the Republicans to punish her because she'll be my ranking on the Commerce Committee, and she and I worked -- we do good work together. But no, it wasn't.

It was all so you could call it bipartisan. That's what happened in the stimulus bill. We got her vote on the stimulus bill, and it was always -- it was referred to as the bipartisan stimulus bill. Well, it wasn't. It wasn't. It was us plus Olympia, and you know, it's game playing.

ROMANO: She got a lot of attention yesterday. Does it distort the process a little bit?

ROCKEFELLER: Very much so. Yeah, because, I mean, in the meantime, the rest of us were left out of it. So, as a result, we always had to have -- the Democrats would meet, and then the Republicans would meet, and the Democrats would meet, and the Republicans would meet, and then they would be meeting, deciding what was going to happen. So, we were really reacting to their bill, and I found a lot wrong with it.

ROMANO: Does this version of the bill cede too much to the industry, to the insurance industry, in your --

ROCKEFELLER: It gives them more than half of all the money they spend on the bill -- I think it is about $485 billion, which is a chunk of money. It just gives it to the insurance companies so they can do -- or subsidies to get more business so they can raise their premiums.

ROMANO: No parameters on how they should spend it or --

ROCKEFELLER: Nothing.

ROMANO: No accountability.

ROCKEFELLER: No. Which is why one of the amendments I will offer which will say that -- sort of a medical-loss ratio, is the official word for it, but I want them to spend 85 percent, the insurance industry generally, of everything they take in on medical care and be able to prove it. And if we can get that, that will be good, and then we should also -- you know, no preexisting conditions and all the rest of it. That we did, but it's not enough.

ROMANO: A few days before the vote, the industry came out with a report saying that it was going to drive premiums, which some of the Democrats saw as a scare tactic.

Tactically, was this a mistake on their part?

ROCKEFELLER: I think it is one of the dumbest things I have ever seen in the 25 years I've been here, and I've seen some pretty dumb things. I mean, I just don't know what they thought they were going to do. I think it has consolidated the Democratic Party, I think it has greatly enlarged the possibility of the public option.

People don't admire when people do blatantly stupid things in Washington, D.C., especially at a high level on a high-level bill. And yeah, I think they're going to pay a price for it, and I will be happy to see it.

ROMANO: You are no fan of the industry.

ROCKEFELLER: No, I'm not.

ROMANO: You think they're greedy.

ROCKEFELLER: I think they're greedy. Wendell Potter who you know of from CIGNA, 20 years he purged, took people off roles, that was their job -- they were incented to do that by the company. We discovered him in the Commerce Committee and now he's become an international film star, probably win a Cannes Film Festival, or something.

ROMANO: What else did those hearings tell you? You're Chairman of the Commerce Committee. You've done some investigations. You've held hearings about the practices of the industry. What did you learn that you didn't know?

ROCKEFELLER: I think just how bad they are, how greedy they are, how little they care. When they say in their report that this is going to cause premiums to go up, well, they'll be the ones to raise the premiums. There is nothing that will cause it. Their increase in profits have gone up 131 percent and wages have gone up 30 percent and other stuff, 38 percent. I mean, it's outrageous, and they don't care; they don't have to care. They don't report to anybody.

ROMANO: They have made clear they're going to go after the bill. They're launching ad campaigns all over the place. Can they kill it at this point?

ROCKEFELLER: No.

ROMANO: Why is that?

ROCKEFELLER: Because they came in too late. That's one of the reasons why it was so stupid.

Will they make some people nervous? Sure. It's easy to make people nervous. But can they kill the bill? No.

ROMANO: What has driven your passion for health-care reform?

ROCKEFELLER: Oh, I think it came from when I first went to West Virginia as a Vista worker and I was dealing with, you know, 358 -- that was the total population of Emmons, West Virginia. Nobody had health care and I was -- I've always been good with kids, and you'd see kids without proper dental care, no dental care, they've never had it. And then, you'd think you were doing something good -- you'd pile them into your jeep and take them down to a dental clinic in Charleston somewhere and they were 14 or 15 and they had tooth problems, and then you learned that if the baby teeth aren't good then any teeth that follow after it are going to be diseased.

And people are afraid of health-care in Appalachia and lots of parts of the country. They have enough bad news in their life. They don't want to go and take a PET scan and something of that sort and get more bad news. So, health-care is a very emotional, delicate subject. It hurts enormously.

I mean, I'm thinking as we're talking of an eight-year-old who died yesterday from leukemia because the caps on his insurance ran out.

I had long meeting with the family and we tried to help and the health-insurance industry just said, 'Sorry.'

It is a sad story and you can say it is over-dramatic, but frankly it happens a lot.

ROMANO: You had also -- I saw a reference -- you had also an issue when your mother was terminally ill.

Can you tell me a little bit about that?

ROCKEFELLER: Well, I mentioned in my speech just before we voted that I was sad that we hadn't taken up end-of-life care, which of course brings to mind death juries and all of this kind of stuff, and I didn't care about that. What I cared about was that this was a woman, like many others, who has Alzheimer's and had it for 12 years, and the last 7 years or we can -- maybe it was 6, maybe it was 8 -- didn't want to be there. And so, the whole question of, what was her will, was it known, did she have a -- you know, a durable power of attorney? Well, yes she did, but she was 82 years old and she had forgotten where she'd put it. And obviously, in her state, with Alzheimer's, she wasn't going to be able to remember that. All of her children, all four of us, wanted the same thing, for her to die in comfort, at home, and not humiliate herself, either to herself or to others by being this way for 12 years.

And in our case, we could afford that, but in most families, you know, the children come home from Ohio or Michigan and they bring their kids home and they spend all their money that the -- the college education money, that all goes to keeping people alive who don't want to be kept alive. And there's not a question of a death jury, it's just a question of following a patient's will. And people have very strong feelings. I don't want to be kept artificially alive. I don't want to rob you, my children, of your happiness. I don't want to embarrass myself.

I have this theory that somehow people, no matter what their degree of illness, can always see themselves from the outside. There is some kind of -- some force working out there that makes them hurt about themselves, and you don't want that.

ROMANO: Going back to the public option again, do you feel like you can get the 60 votes on the floor for a public option?

ROCKEFELLER: Don't know.

ROMANO: Because a lot of moderate Democrats were not--

ROCKEFELLER: Yeah. But you see, this is where the question of leadership comes in. Leadership, yes, has to count the votes to make sure they can get it, but sometimes leadership withholds their own votes because they say, as took -- in our own Finance Committee -- well, I can't -- the Chairman said, I can't vote for this because I have to get 60 votes. Well, we actually weren't at that stage yet. The question was, could he get it out of the Finance Committee, and if -- sometimes leaders have to act like leaders and then follow through in their wills and other people will follow, because a lot of people don't know all the details about those things, and the public option is in fact the only alternative to rein in insurance companies. There is no alternative. People talked about coops. They don't exist in this country except in two states.

ROMANO: What about a trigger mechanism?

ROCKEFELLER: I don't like that.

ROMANO: Why?

ROCKEFELLER: Because it probably won't work -- it just probably won't work and we've used that in other cases and it hasn't work.

I want -- and it's a cute little technique. I want to go right at the subject of public option. It has huge moral and medical implications, so go at it.

ROMANO: And you're ready for a floor fight if you have to?

ROCKEFELLER: Absolutely.

ROMANO: Now, is that the deal-breaker for you?

ROCKEFELLER: There are no lines in the sand, there's just tons and tons of passion. You might say there are all kinds of things that could be a deal-breaker for me, but I want to see health-care passed, and I want to see it passed the best possible way.

So, I'll be nasty and I'll be nice and all kinds of things, but I want a bill.

ROMANO: Okay. Well, great. Thank you.

ROCKEFELLER: Thank you, Lois.

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