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Delegation: McGovern's idea too simple to work

George McGovern's idea to solve the nation's healthcare problems by extending Medicare to all Americans is too simple to work, South Dakota's current congressional delegates said Thursday.

McGovern, a Mitchell native and resident who represented South Dakota for 22 years in Congress and was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, proposed the idea in a recent op-ed piece for The Washington Post. The op-ed was reprinted in Thursday's Daily Republic.

"If we want comprehensive health care for all our citizens, we can achieve it with a single sentence: Congress hereby extends Medicare to all Americans," McGovern wrote.

Medicare is the federal-government insurance program for people 65 and older, and for some who meet other criteria.

Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin treaded lightly in her rejection of McGovern's idea, saying first that she has "tremendous respect for Sen. McGovern." Then came the "but":

"But that proposal doesn't have sufficient support here in Washington," Herseth Sandlin said in response to a Daily Republic question during her Thursday conference call with reporters.

One of the reasons the nation needs health-care reform is because the longterm costs of Medicare exceed its revenues from taxes, Herseth Sandlin said. A spokeswoman for Herseth Sandlin added later that, according to Medicare trustees, the Medicare trust fund that pays for hospital care will be insolvent in 2017.

Medicare has additional problems, she said, such as its failure to cover some doctors' costs. Until such problems with the current system are resolved, Herseth Sandlin does not believe it is "at all feasible to just open up the system to everyone."

"That would result in a pretty dramatic shift of our current system that I don't think anyone is prepared for," she said.

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and Republican Sen. John Thune each responded with a written statement after The Daily Republic asked for their opinion on McGovern's idea. Neither approached the issue as delicately as Herseth Sandlin.

Johnson said, "When it comes to a single-payer plan, it is impossible to get there from here and a proposal like that isn't on the table.

"Both the Senate and the House have made steady progress over the last few months on measures to reform our health-care system, and I am confident we will continue to move forward on plans to bring down cost and increase affordability for South Dakotans."

Andi Fouberg, communications director for Sen. Thune, recited a litany of problems that beset the current Medicare system and provided a statement from Sen. Thune.

"Government does not run big programs well," the statement said in part, "and expanding Medicare to everyone will not result in improved coverage for Americans, just larger tax bills ..."

McGovern mentioned taxes in his op-ed: "Removing the payments now going to the insurance corporations," he wrote, "would considerably offset the tax increase necessary to cover all Americans."

Fouberg disagreed and said any tax increase would have to be "huge" to cover the increased cost of expanding Medicare, and even then would probably fall short. Health-care providers would have to take cuts in order to make the system work, she said, which would result in fewer people entering the health-care industry and increased recruiting difficulties for providers in rural areas.

McGovern anticipated criticism of his idea, writing in his op-ed that "Many people familiar with politics in America will tell you that this idea can't pass Congress, in part because the insurance lobby is too powerful for lawmakers to resist."

He went on to predict that insurance companies will fight hard to protect the "bonanza" of profits they enjoy under the current system. After acknowledging that it is "a mistake for one politician to judge the personal motives of another," he pointed out that two of the lawmakers at the forefront of the health-care debate, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have received about $4 million and $2 million, respectively, from the health-care lobby since 2003.

"... Sens. Baucus and Grassley are firm opponents of the single-payer system, as are other highly placed members of Congress who have been generously rewarded by the insurance lobby," McGovern wrote.

A reporter on Herseth Sandlin's Thursday conference call asked -- without referencing McGovern's op-ed -- if Herseth Sandlin thinks insurance-industry campaign contributions are making some lawmakers resist health-care reform.

"That is ridiculous, and I made that point to the broader caucus last week," Herseth Sandlin said. "I don't appreciate any of my colleagues, Democrat or Republican, bringing that kind of argument into this debate."

Herseth Sandlin praised the new health-care reform legislation unveiled Wednesday by Baucus. She called the proposal an "important step" toward reform and said the costliest option is inaction.

According to McGovern, Congress should stick to Medicare and make modifications that will allow its expansion.

"If Medicare needs a few modifications in order to serve all Americans, we can make such adjustments now or later," he wrote. "But let's make sure Congress has an up or down vote on Medicare for all before it adjourns this year. Let's not waste time trying to reinvent the wheel. We all know what Medicare is. Do we want health care for all, or only for those over 65?"