Colleagues say Sen. Rockefeller will be missed on healthcare issues

With the retirement of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), the left — not to mention the Senate — is losing one of its biggest voices on healthcare.

Rockefeller announced Friday that he won’t run for reelection in 2014, when his current term ends. Colleagues and allies praised his long record of pushing for universal healthcare coverage, as well as his aggressive defense of Medicaid.

“For quite a while, Jay was viewed as Mr. Healthcare on the Hill, said Ron Pollack, executive director of the advocacy group Families USA.

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Rockefeller emphasized healthcare in his announcement Friday. He noted that he helped create the Children’s Health Insurance Program and was instrumental in the Clinton administration’s failed healthcare push. As the No. 2 Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Rockefeller also helped shape the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m just so proud that we saw it through to the end,” Rockefeller said. “The insurance companies don’t like it, which makes me very proud.”

Rockefeller insisted that he wasn’t retiring because he feared a competitive race in 2014, and said he doesn’t particularly mind that the Affordable Care Act is unpopular in his state.

“My fingerprints are all over it, and I knows it’s good and I know it’s going to benefit West Virginia,” he said.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) worked with Rockefeller on a provision of the health law that requires insurance companies to spend a certain share of their premiums on healthcare costs or pay a rebate to their customers. Franken praised Rockefeller Friday as an “outstanding representative” for his state.

“Jay has been a true leader in the fight to give everyone affordable access to high quality health care, and I was proud to work with him on a number of health care provisions – including one that has already cut over a billion dollars in insurance costs – and we're all going to miss him when he leaves the Senate,” Franken said in a statement to The Hill.

The two senators appeared together at a press conference last month where they pressed President Obama and Democratic leaders not to cut Medicaid in deficit-reduction talks, and Medicaid has been a particularly important cause for Rockefeller.

“Any time there’s been a threat relative to Medicaid, he has always played a very active role in trying to blunt those efforts, and he’s certainly been the most outspoken member of the Finance Committee,” Pollack said.

He said other Senate Democrats — including Franken and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — have also stepped up to the plate on healthcare and Medicaid, specifically, but that Rockefeller was ahead of his time in matching Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), one of the most consistent advocates for Medicaid.

“It’s not like we’re bereft of leaders, but at one point Jay was really as active as anyone, provided as much leadership as anyone,” Pollack said.

Waxman praised Rockefeller’s “unmatched” commitment to healthcare programs for the poor and disabled.

“He has been a strong defender of Medicare, as well, of course. But his special place as the voice of the vulnerable populations on Medicaid is his legacy,” Waxman said. “He has two more years of service during the critical period of budget negotiations and ACA implementation, of course, and he will remain critical to the defense and improvement of Medicaid and CHIP as long as he is in the Senate. But when he leaves the Senate, his presence will be sorely missed--most particularly by the more than 60 million beneficiaries of Medicaid and CHIP coverage.”