U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said during a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon in Shelbyville that it will take a bipartisan approach to get health care reform, or anything else, passed by Congress.
About 100 people attended the event, which was held in the Blue Ribbon Circle building on the Celebration grounds.
Corker, a Republican from Chattanooga, said that health care reform is needed, including changes such as tort reform, changes to the tax code, protection for those with pre-existing conditions and opening up the market for health insurance companies to compete across state lines.
Corker noted that when he sold his real estate development business to run for the Senate, it affected one of his employees who had pre-existing health conditions and found it hard to obtain insurance elsewhere.
But he said he does not support any sort of "public option" which would put the government further into the health insurance business.
"I don't want to see us have a government-run health care plan," said Corker.
No easy answers
Corker said many of his colleagues are looking for pragmatic solutions which will not increase the deficit or the role of government. He echoed the words of U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon the night before in saying that there's not a single proposal close to passage.
"There is no bill yet," said Corker, and several different proposals are being studied by different committees in both houses of Congress. He said the best-known House bill "is going into the trash can," as is the bill drafted by the Senate's Health, Education and Labor Committee. He said the bill from the Senate Finance Committee is the only bill he considers workable.
He said one proposal calls for taking $410 billion from Medicare to fund a new health care program.
"That doesn't pass the common sense test," said Corker, since Medicare is already projected to run out of money by 2017. He said cutting the reimbursement for doctors and nurses would drive medical professionals out of the business. It would take a $285 billion increase in Medicare funding just to keep payments for doctors and nurses at their present level.
He said he met with President Obama last month to discuss the health care issue.
Corker quoted Gov. Phil Bredesen as saying that administration proposals which would pull money out of state-run programs like TennCare would amount to "the mother of all unfunded mandates." He said that the federal government should ensure the solvency of existing health care programs rather than starting a new one.
Corker noted that health care from an employer can be considered tax-free, but people who pay for their own health insurance must do so with after-tax dollars. He noted that the investment firm Goldman Sachs gives its executives a tax-free health plan costing $41,000 per year. He said the tax code should be changed to remove the tax benefit from such extravagant, top-of-the-line plans.
Corker also said that reform of tort law has had "a huge effect" on lowering malpractice lawsuit costs in California.
Corker said more needs to be done to reduce drug prices.
"There's really not much happening on the pharmaceutical front," he said. Other countries with national health care plans have heavily regulated drug prices, which leaves drug companies to make most of their profits by charging higher prices in the U.S. But if the U.S. retaliates, some of those countries have threatened to eliminate patent rights for drug companies.
Corker said he's not yet sure whether proponents of a public option bill will be willing to drop back and support a more moderate bill which would try to address the health care crisis through programs like tort reform or pharmaceutical costs.
'Tipping point' near
Corker said that various town halls held by senators and congressmen to discuss the health care issue have been "incredibly spirited."
"Tennesseans are great citizens," said Corker. "They care deeply about their state and country."
He said he senses a "tipping point" is near in citizens' objections to the increasing role of government and increasing national debt. He said both parties have been irresponsible in their spending in the past. Corker said that, as a real estate developer, he "lost his shirt" on the former Bi-Lo shopping center in Shelbyville. He said he went through a period of about a year and a half with his company when he was worried about how to pay his debts.
"I know what it feels like to sense you've reached that tipping point," he said.
Bailout hit hard
Corker repeated his criticism of the past year's federal bailout programs, saying that companies should be allowed to collapse.
"No company is too big to fail," said Corker. "I'm sorry -- I think if you fail, you ought to fail." He noted that his hard-line approach to the auto industry has no doubt hurt his popularity in the state of Michigan. He criticized the whirlwind process which took General Motors into and out of bankruptcy in a month and a half, leaving some bond-holders with only pennies on the dollar of their original investment.
Chuck Hanes, a Shelbyville resident who owns Team Chevrolet in Smyrna, thanked Corker for trying, unsuccessfully, to help keep the firm from losing its GM dealership. Hanes said the business will survive by selling pre-owned cars.
In response to a question about foreign aid, Corker said he is co-sponsoring a bill to study the levels of foreign aid provided to different countries. He said foreign aid decisions are often hasty or inconsistent and that the program needs to be reviewed. But he noted that some foreign aid is in America's interest, saying that extremist groups like al-Qaida prey on impoverished countries.
On another issue related to al-Qaida, Corker said the U.S. will likely need to be in Afghanistan for "a long, long time" in order to prevent al-Qaida from having a safe haven there. But he said the U.S. presence there has just driven al-Qaida elsewhere. Of the 2,000 al-Qaida operatives, Corker said 500 are believed to be in Pakistan and the other 1,500 in locations around the world, such as Somalia.
Corker said that the increasing size of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization needs to be kept in check. NATO was originally intended as a mutual-defense agreement, but the U.S. is the only member of the group in a real position to provide defense, and so any new country added to NATO increases U.S. responsibilities.
NATO is very different than it was after World War II," said Corker.
Corker criticized the "cap and trade" proposal to reduce carbon emissions, saying it would have transferred $6.8 trillion in wealth to the federal government and that Sen. Barbara Boxer of California was already making plans on how to spend the money. Corker proposed an amendment which would have required that money to be returned to the taxpayers. The amendment failed, but Corker said it helped bring attention to the true cost of the bill and rally opposition to it among midwestern Senators, who realized that it would increase energy costs and make their states' industries less competitive.
"I don't think that cap and trade will happen this year," said Corker.
Jim Allison, general manager of Duck River Electric Membership Corp., told Corker that some of the restrictions in the bill would make electricity unaffordable.
When asked if he plans on running for re-election in 2012, Corker initially said "I have no idea," but then said that, as of now, he sees himself running again.
Corker was presented with a crystal trophy by Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration CEO Doyle Meadows.
"I know the Celebration is a big part of this community," said Corker, who said it's important for federal regulators to work towards consistency in horse inspections.