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Can Healthcare Reform Become Reality Without Sen. Kennedy?

Janice Simmons, for HealthLeaders Media, August 27, 2009

Since he was elected in 1962, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who died Tuesday, has been a tireless fighter for healthcare reforms. But with his passing, will the reforms he had long sought become reality without his leadership? Maybe—but the atmosphere of bipartisanship that he had promoted with earlier legislation will be likely frayed without his presence.

He introduced his first bill calling for universal health coverage in 1970. In 1980, healthcare reform became central to his presidential campaign—underscoring the idea that not just coverage but escalating health costs could impact family and national budgets. In 1993, he took up the cause again when President Clinton called for reforms to the healthcare system.

While those wars may have been lost, he was winning incremental battles in what he saw as improvements to the healthcare system—looking for bipartisan support wherever he could. In 1996, for instance, he worked across the aisle with Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) to address health privacy issues and make health insurance more portable through the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which is better known as HIPAA.

While Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has been continually on the other side of the political spectrum from Kennedy, they worked together to establish creation of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), among other pieces of legislation.

On Wednesday, many of the leaders on Capitol Hill who worked with Kennedy over the years praised him for his bipartisan efforts to get healthcare legislation through. Hatch, in his statement, said that when he first came to the Senate, he "was filled with conservative fire in my belly and an itch to take on any and everyone who stood in my way, including Ted Kennedy," he said.

However, while they often disagreed on most issues, "once in a while we could actually get together and find the common ground, which is essential in passing legislation." While they alternated as chairman and ranking members of the Senate Labor Committee, now called the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, as the party majorities switched, they were able to "come together in a bipartisan fashion to craft some of this nation’s most important health legislation."

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), who also alternated as chairman and ranking member with Kennedy on the HELP Committee, said that Kennedy "was always willing to not only reach across the aisle, but had the unique ability to pull people together to get things done—with both substance and a great sense of humor."

Some of that bipartisanship support was missing during the hearings this summer on the healthcare reform bill considered by the HELP Committee, chaired by Kennedy's friend, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT). While 160 Republican amendments were included in the final bill approved last month, the GOP members, who continually voiced displeasure about not being included in the initial drafting of the bill, voted against it. (The bill passed on party line 13-10.)

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