By Nathan Mayberg
HARRIS November 15, 2005 In his first trip to Sullivan County in seven months (his fourth in two years), United States Senator Charles Schumer chose his time back in the Catskills to talk about health care and other issues with the staff and leadership of Catskill Regional Medical Center, as well as an assembly of other local medical professionals and a number of community leaders Friday.
Greeted with a warm welcome and flanked by New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (a former department head at the hospital), the senator attacked the Republican leadership of Congress and the presidential administration, while stating that he would do all he could to fight against what he views as their attacks on the nations health care system.
He chose Veterans Day, a busy traveling day for him, as the occasion to see a community which he admitted had changed quite a great deal since his first official trip to the county back in 1998. At that time, said New Yorks senior senator, it was a whole different attitude. People were afraid of it dying.
Now, they are trying to handle its growth, he said.
Schumers speech, followed by a question-and-answer period, was preceded by a short presentation by Jonathan Drapkin, speaking as the Chairman of the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development.
He said the health care industry employs approximately 4,500 people in the county. Over $200 million has been invested in the medical field over the last decade, he added. And with an aging baby boomer generation, the industry will continue to grow, he concluded.
The senator opened his remarks by noting he now served on the Senate Finance Committee, which he deemed the most important of all. The committee oversees health care spending, a market which has grown by about 25 percent in the last ten years, he said. He follows in the footsteps of his mentor, the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who also served on the powerful board.
Schumer considered the more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts led by President George Bush and passed by a Republican-controlled Congress, to be the most critical obstacle to passing effective legislation.
Its unbelievable that we dont have money for anything, he said.
The latest attempt to extend the tax cuts, which primarily benefit the wealthy, would have resulted in funding for Medicare and Medicaid being cut by $15 billion, he claimed. That attempt failed when the moderate Republican senator Olympia Snowe (Maine) voted alongside all nine Democrats on the committee to thwart the effort.
An attempt in the House of Representatives to cut Medicare and Medicaid funding, along with food stamps and foster care payments, also died when moderate Republicans opposed it. He raised the possibility that those efforts may have faltered due to the recent resignation of House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay after being indicted on criminal charges. DeLay was long known for successfully pushing his agenda with strong support among fellow Republicans.
Schumer said he still faces a possible challenge from Republicans who want to eliminate less expensive generic drugs from being covered by Medicaid and Medicare. He alleged that they did so at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry.
It just doesnt make any sense at all. This is what were going through, he lamented.
He did however, state that the growing expense of health care has become a major burden for just about everybody.
Our society has to make some decisions with health care, he said.
Its success in making people live longer than ever before has made the system much more costly. Still, he believes all Americans deserve a floor of health care, but who is going to pay?
The left calls for universal medicine, and the right believes the private sector should pay for it on their own, he said.
The middle class is paying more and getting less back, he said.
Carol Ryan, Sullivan County Director of Public Health, pointed out that about 45 million Americans are without health insurance. There is a terrible disparity in the quality of care for the underprivileged and the rest of society, she said.
The only answer is national health care, responded Schumer.
It will cost a lot of money, and the country isnt yet ready to pay for it. However, he said such a system could become a reality within the next five to ten years. Already, major corporations such as General Motors are beginning to lobby Congress for a national system as they struggle to provide coverage to their employees. (GM just increased the amount of money workers have to provide for their insurance.)
Still, he said, Medicaid is a wonderful system.
That brought a skeptical response from local family doctor Abraham Garfinkel, who said that it is virtually impossible for Medicaid patients to see a specialist in Sullivan County. They usually have to travel to Westchester County, he said. Schumer acknowledged that and said it was a result of a low reimbursement ratio.
The senator also cautioned against following other national health care models, which are not as great as they can be made out to be. For example, in Canada, which has national health care, those who live near the border with Buffalo travel through customs to receive the superior medical service in America.
Schumer said the first priority should be to cover children. He suggested tax credits to businesses who offer health benefits often the largest expense for companies.
For her part, Gunther brought up the problem that many seniors have been having with the new controversial prescription drug plan passed by the Congress last year. She also pointed out that Sullivan County has the highest per capita AIDS rate outside of New York City.
Schumer was unrelenting against the Republicans who led the passage of the drug bill, which will make Medicare more expensive by more than $500 billion, while taking more money out of those who sign up for the new plan. The whole purpose of such a bill was to save Americans money by using the bargaining power of Medicare in purchasing drugs at a bulk rate for the more than 40 million Americans who belong to Medicare, he explained. Instead, that ability was specifically ruled out.
The pharmaceutical industry rules the roost, summed up Schumer. Wed be better not having [the new bill]. . . . Seniors cant understand it. I dont understand it.
Despite all that talk, the senator had room for another major issue on the minds of millions education. He said the country dropped from being the number one educated country in the world during the 1970s down to 17th among the industrialized nations, from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
America is still number one in higher education, he said.
The reason? The reliance schools have on local property taxes and more opportunities for smart women to advance in society these days rather than being restricted to the educational field.
While saying he is an optimist, Schumer had a generally critical view of the nations direction.
In this country, we are twiddling our thumbs on education, global warming and an energy policy. We are in a 21st century world, he said. We are going to lose out.
Afterwards, BOCES Superintendent of Schools Martin Handler responded to Schumers assessment of the nations schools.
Were the only country that tries to educate everyone. . . . Can we do better? Absolutely.
After a brief tour of the hospital, including the hospitals new MRI machine, Schumer took a couple more policy questions. On Bushs pending nomination of Samuel Alito Jr. to the United States Supreme Court, Schumer said he has met with Alito once.
He is scholarly and bright, unlike Harriet Miers who Bush first nominated, said Schumer. The two were nominated as a replacement for Sandra Day OConnor , who is retiring from the nations highest court.
Schumer said he wanted to make sure Alito was not an ideologue.
On Iraq, where more than 2,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in over two and a half years of fighting, Schumer said the President has to have a plan and an end game. He has to have a goal and how to reach it.
Even staunch local Republican William Brenner liked Schumers words.
An excellent speech, remarked Brenner. I agree with many of the things he said.