Governors meeting in D.C. vow to press ahead with healthcare reform options

The nation’s 50 governors pledged Saturday not to wait for a federal healthcare fix to start enacting reforms of their own.

Despite continued unemployment and tens of billions of dollars in state budget deficits that a majority of the nation’s governors are facing, how to provide better healthcare at lower costs is taking center stage at the three-day National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington, even as federal legislation has stalled and Congress has shifted its focus to passing a jobs bill.

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But for the governors – many of whom don’t have the luxury of increasing their state budget deficits – finding their own solutions to the problem of rising healthcare costs can’t wait for whatever prescription Congress eventually comes up with, according to Governors Association Chairman and Vermont Gov. James H. Douglas (R).

“Healthcare costs are such a large and rising part of every state’s budget,” Douglas said at a Saturday morning press conference at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Washington. “We have to confront it. We can’t wait for the federal government.”

“We’re going to move forward,” he said. “When the federal government comes along, we’ll see how we integrate their reforms, but we’re going to do what we can as governors to provide leadership with or without a federal bill.”

The absence of a federal bill is a surprise, Douglas said.

“I expected, to be perfectly honest, when we gathered at our winter meeting in late February, that we’d be talking about implementing a new national health plan that was approved by the Congress,” he said.

While the current situation is a surprise and a disappointment to many governors, some hinted that it was a surprise that was in some ways welcome.

Without commenting specifically on either the House- or Senate-passed healthcare bills, Governors Association Vice Chairman Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) repeatedly cited the need for any federal law to give the states flexibility in implementing certain reforms, including individual insurance coverage mandates.

In addition to sharing their individual state experiences and hoping to learn from one another about various reform proposals, the governors said they were looking forward to the opportunity to hopefully influence the federal debate, even less than a week before President Barack Obama holds his bipartisan healthcare forum as part of his final push for enactment of a comprehensive reform bill.

“We’re going to continue our discussions with federal officials to bring a state perspective to these deliberations,” Douglas said.

After a Sunday night black-tie reception at the White House, the governors will meet privately with Obama on Monday morning.


Any disappointment or frustration with the federal healthcare debate, however, was reserved for Congress, which some governors openly criticized for overly politicizing an important policy discussion, which ultimately led to the current stalemate.

“We don’t have the luxury of just having debates like Congress,” Douglas said. “We actually have to implement reforms in our states and get the job done.”

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said his own state was able to overcome those obstacles when, in the process of creating a universal health insurance system, the various interests got past the mindset that there were only two options: a perfect solution or no solution at all.

“I think there are some lessons in that experience for the federal level as well,” Patrick said.

Some were less delicate in their criticisms of federal lawmakers.

“Congress, they talk about it,” said Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-Mont.). “And worse yet, when they talk about it, they say, ‘Maybe what we ought to do is kick it all out to the states and see if they can figure this out.’ Well, we’d be more than happy to figure this out, but the only time they listen to us is when we come to town. And by the way, Congress is on vacation.”


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