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Lack of Focus, Consensus Keep Uninsured on Back Burner

OCTOBER 28, 2005 -- Two former congressional health policy staff members said Friday that Congress and the nation must develop a consensus on how to cover the uninsured to give the issue a higher priority on Capitol Hill.

"Covering the uninsured is simply not a priority for this administration or for congressional leaders," said Liz Fowler, former chief health and entitlements counsel for the Senate Finance Committee, who worked with ranking Democrat Max Baucus of Montana.

"Ideology has no place in this. It is a hindrance to the debate on the uninsured instead of helping to reach a solution," added Fowler, now a principal at Health Policy Alternatives, a health care consulting firm.

Dean Rosen, former chief health care advisor to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and now director of the health care practice at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc., agreed the problem will not be solved through partisan bickering. Instead, he said, there needs to be a national consensus and that right now the uninsured are at the bottom of the legislative agenda.

"We have philosophical differences between parties," he said. "We also have a lack of focus."

Fowler and Rosen made their comments during a panel discussion on the uninsured sponsored by the Alliance for Health Reform, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group. According to the Alliance, an estimated 45.8 million Americans do not have health insurance, and two-thirds of these people have incomes at or near the poverty level.

Fowler said that while health insurance may be a popular concern of the American people, they cannot agree on a single solution to the problem and fear having to pay more taxes or losing their current coverage. While she believes federal action is necessary, she criticized Congress for not being able to decide on how to deal with uninsured victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"If we can't even agree on Katrina relief, I don't see how we can find any common ground on a broader initiative," she said.

Rosen also added that in order to get the issue on the federal agenda, there needs to be more of an outreach to the public, suggesting that interest groups should try to raise awareness of the issue.

"It is not the number one health policy concern of the general public," he said. "Whether it's an evening show that has an uninsured character, it's going to take insertion into the popular culture to get people informed."

In turn, Rosen believes having informed voters will help congressional lawmakers bring the issue to the floor.

"I'm just a realist here—but voters express themselves in elections whether you have a change in leadership or not," he said.

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