Sunday, December 20, 2009

Senator Collins to vote against health care legislation

Says bill fails to reduce costs and will hurt Maine's seniors, health care providers, and small businesses

U.S. Senator Susan Collins announced today her decision to vote against the final health care bill unveiled by Majority Leader Harry Reid on Saturday. Following is her statement:

"Our nation’s health care system requires substantial reform. The status quo of soaring health care costs, families struggling, millions uninsured, and health care provider shortages is unacceptable. That is why I am so disappointed that the partisan legislation before the Senate falls far short of what should be the goals of reform. This bill will actually increase health care costs, impose billions in new taxes, fees, and penalties, and hurt our seniors, health care providers, and small businesses. I simply cannot support such a bill.

"It is particularly disappointing that the bill does not do enough to rein in the cost of health care and to provide consumers with more affordable choices. Whether I am talking to a self-employed fisherman, a laid-off worker, the owner of a struggling small business, or the human resource manager of a large company, the soaring cost of health insurance is a primary concern. Yet, the government's own actuary projects that health care costs will be higher as a result of this bill than under current law.

"I am deeply opposed to the nearly $500 billion in cuts to Medicare – a program that already has long-term financing problems. It is fiscally irresponsible to raid Medicare to pay for a new entitlement program at a time when the number of Medicare beneficiaries is on the rise.

"It makes no sense that the bill would slash more than $47 billion in payments to home health and hospice providers. That is completely contrary to the goal of controlling health care costs because home care and hospice services have consistently proven to be cost-effective alternatives to institutional care.

"According to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Actuary, these deep cuts could push one in five hospitals, nursing homes, and home health providers into the red. Many of these providers would simply stop taking Medicare patients, which would jeopardize access to care for millions of seniors.

"The comments of the Chief Executive Officer of Central Maine Healthcare, reflect what I have heard from many of Maine's health care providers about this bill. He told me that its passage would be 'disastrous' for Maine and would saddle our hospitals with some $800 million in Medicare cuts over the next ten years.

"Aside from the devastating cuts in Medicare, additional financing for this bill comes through an array of new taxes, penalties, and fees on individuals, employers, insurance providers, and medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers. The Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation have testified that these costs will simply be passed on to consumers, further increasing the costs of health care for many Americans – the opposite of what health care reform should produce.

"And there is a four-year gap between when billions of new taxes and fees are imposed and when the new subsidies go into effect. The bill would provide fewer and more expensive insurance choices for many self-employed individuals who will not qualify for subsidies.

"The detrimental impact of this bill on small businesses, our nation's job creators, concerns me greatly. This bill would discourage small businesses from hiring more employees and paying them better. It could lead to onerous financial penalties on small businesses that are already struggling to provide health insurance for their employees.

"Small businesses want to provide health insurance for their employees, but many simply cannot afford to absorb double-digit increases in their health insurance premiums year after year. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), the nation’s leading small business association, says this bill does too little to reduce insurance costs, imposes new taxes, establishes new entitlement programs, and creates new mandates that will burden small business owners and their employees. In short, the NFIB says, 'the Senate bill fails small business.' I agree.

"To remedy some of these fundamental problems, I worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to offer significant bipartisan amendments aimed at containing costs, helping small businesses, increasing affordability, and providing more choices for consumers. Unfortunately, we were precluded from offering our amendments due to procedural roadblocks.

"It is unfair that Republicans were allowed to offer only seven amendments to a bill that affects every single citizen and one-sixth of our nation’s economy.

"The health care legislation before the Senate has enormous consequences for our economy and our society. The Senate missed the opportunity to produce true, bipartisan health reform. Unfortunately, the process became too divisive and partisan, and the result is a bill that takes us in the wrong direction and will do more harm than good. Keeping in mind the oath every physician takes to 'first, do no harm,' I will cast my vote against this legislation."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lieberman, Collins look to special commission to restore nation's fiscal balance

Leading financial experts Thursday told Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., that the only way Congress can tackle the nation’s growing $12 trillion debt is through a statutorily-created, bipartisan commission.
At a hearing entitled, “Safeguarding the American Dream: Prospects for our Economic Future and Proposals to Secure It,” witnesses urged creation of a commission whose recommendations would be put on a legislative fast track and would not be subject to amendment by Congress.
“The American people have reached a tipping point on this,” Lieberman said. “They see that we in Washington are incapable of dealing with the debt, ultimately because we are irresponsible. We like to spend and we don’t like to raise taxes. You don’t have to be Alan Greenspan to know that that will lead to an unsustainable debt…
“If we continue adding to the debt without putting in place meaningful measures to pay it back, we put at risk both our economic and national security; we place our nation’s economy at the mercies of foreign creditors who don’t always share our values; and we put in jeopardy generational promises we have made to ourselves and our children, like Medicare and Social Security.”
Senator Collins said: “We cannot continue business as usual. This is the moment in history in which we must confront the conflict between what we want and what we can afford. It is time to reassess our national priorities, to make the hard decisions, and to set a new course.
“The budget reform proposals presented by our Senate colleagues would begin to move us forward as a nation in facing our fiscal challenges.”
During the hearing, Senator Collins asked witness David Walker, former Comptroller General of the United States, about the irony of the day’s hearing, saying: “I cannot help but observe the irony that we are having this debate about what to do with the unsustainable debt load of this country at a time that we are debating on the Senate floor a huge health care bill that is in essence creating a new entitlement program that has enormous consequences for our future budgets... and that could actually drive national health care spending up, not down.” Walker agreed with Senator Collins’ assessment, saying: “It is somewhat ironic.” The core issue is rising health care costs, he said. “The one thing that could bankrupt America is health care costs and we’re not doing enough to really truly be able to reduce health care costs as well as the rate of increase,” said Walker.

Lieberman has joined with Senator Voinovich, R-Ohio, in introducing legislation – the SAFE Commission Act of 2009, S. 1056 -- to get a handle on the growing debt. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Ranking Member Judd Gregg, R-N.H. – both of whom testified at the hearing -- have introduced a similar proposal, the Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action Act of 2009, S. 2853, which Lieberman and Voinovich have co-sponsored.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testified that expanded prosperity is finite and cannot be counted on to reduce the debt. For that reason, both commission proposals would require that all possible measures be considered – including raising taxes and fees, cutting loans and subsidies, and reigning in discretionary spending and entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.
Lieberman, Conrad, and others have vowed to oppose a long-term increase in the nation’s debt limit unless a special commission is created to bring the debt under control. The Senate is expected to vote this week or next on the short-term debt limit increase the House has already passed.
Witnesses at the hearing also included Walker, who now heads the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The foundation estimates that in addition to the more than $12 trillion in debt, the nation’s unfunded liabilities related to pension obligations, Medicare, and Social Security exceed $40 trillion or almost $500,000 per American household.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Collins, Wyden introduce amendments to hold down premiums and expand health care choices

Bipartisan amendments offered to Senate health care bill

Washington, D.C.-. U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) today filed three bipartisan amendments to the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” If adopted, the amendments will improve the Senate bill by doing more to hold down premium increases for all Americans while expanding health care choices for more Americans and their employers.

“At the end of the day, Americans don’t care if a health reform proposal originated with a Democrat or a Republican, what matters to them is that it works,” Senator Wyden said. “I’m proud to join forces with Senator Collins to offer common-sense amendments that will hold down premium costs and make health care more affordable for American families and their employers. As I have long said, the best way to hold down health care costs and make insurance companies accountable is to put Americans in the driver’s seat and empower them to pick the plan that best fits their needs.”

Senator Collins said; “Health care reform should give Americans more choices of affordable health insurance options. That is why I am pleased to have worked closely with Senator Wyden on this bipartisan amendment that would help keep costs down and provide individuals, employers and employees with more health care choices.”

Senators Wyden and Collins are proposing as amendments to the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” the following three amendments:

MORE CHOICES FOR EMPLOYERS AND WORKERS: While the current Senate legislation will eventually make it possible for employers to insure their workforce in the new health insurance exchanges, the legislation does not contain a mechanism to make it possible for employers to offer their workers the ability to choose any plan offered in the exchange. This Wyden-Collins amendment would correct that by making it possible for employers – who want to offer their employees the full range of choices in the exchange – to do just that while increasing competition in the new marketplace:

Under the amendment, any employer that sponsors a health plan would have the option to offer tax-free vouchers to its workers equal to the amount the employer contributes to its own health plan. Workers could then use that voucher to purchase the exchange plan that works best for them and their family. If a worker decides to purchase a less-expensive plan the worker would keep the savings as added income just as workers wanting to purchase more generous plans in the exchange will be able to pay the additional cost out of pocket. Whatever employers pay for vouchers will remain tax deductible for employers and tax free for employees; and while no employer will be required to offer vouchers under the new system, in order to encourage participation, employers who want to offer their employees tax-free vouchers will be given accelerated access to the new health insurance exchanges. Under the amendment, any employer offering its workers vouchers would have access to the exchange in 2015 rather than 2017, which is the schedule for employer access in the bill.

OFFERING MORE CHOICES IN THE EXCHANGE: This amendment will make it possible for individuals, who are not eligible for a subsidy, to purchase a catastrophic plan, regardless of age. Catastrophic plans will typically have much lower premiums than other plans offered through the exchange but subscribers will pay for most of their health care expenses “out-of pocket” up until they exceed their plan’s catastrophic limit.

Americans should have the choice to purchase more affordable coverage, if that is what works best for them. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, individuals up to the age of 30 are eligible to purchase these plans. The Wyden-Collins amendment will extend that option to individuals – not receiving government subsidies – over the age of 30. This amendment would give consumers more choice and help ensure that more people can purchase coverage that fits their needs and is affordable to them.

The amendment includes aggressive disclosure requirements that will require catastrophic subscribers to certify that they understand the terms of the coverage and know that they are purchasing the lowest level of coverage available.

III. HOLDING DOWN PREMIUMS FOR CONSUMERS: Starting in 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will impose an annual fee on insurance companies based on the number of premiums written each year. This amendment will modify that fee to create an incentive for insurers to hold down rates. So, for example, insurance companies that hold down premium increases will pay lower fees, while insurers who jack-up their premiums will pay much higher fees. Starting in 2010 the fee will be varied by as much as 50% based on how aggressively insurers control costs which will give them a strong incentive to hold the line on overhead, executive salaries, provider payments and inefficiency. As under the bill, the total amount of the annual fee will be $6.7 billion per year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Major victory for Senator Collins' effort to lift federal truck weights in Maine

Senate- House conferees approve one-year pilot program
Collins fought to include one year project in final 2010 Transportation Appropriations bill

A Senate-House conference committee late tonight gave final approval to Senator Susan Collins’ provision to create a one-year pilot project that would exempt Maine’s highways from the 80,000 pound federal truck weight limit. Senator Collins, who is the only delegation member from Maine to serve on an Appropriations Committee, has championed this provision. This provision was not included in the original House-passed bill but Senator Collins, who was a member of the Conference Committee, fought hard to have it successfully included in the final Fiscal Year 2010 Transportation Appropriations bill.

“Increasing federal truck weight limits on Maine’s interstates has always been one of my top priorities,” said Senator Collins. “A uniform truck weight limit would keep trucks on the interstates where they belong, rather than on the rural roads that pass through our small towns and villages. A one-year pilot project allowing heavier trucks on the interstates would permit an assessment of the impact of the safety, commerce and road wear and tear. I am delighted that I was able to convince my colleagues on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to allow this pilot project to move forward. I hope that both the House and Senate will give final approval to this bill as quickly as possible and it will be signed by the President.”

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Transportation first notified the State of Maine that it was in violation of federal vehicle weight requirements. Maine’s Congressional delegation has been working since then to change the law, which forces northbound trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds off Interstate 95 in Augusta. As a result, heavy trucks traveling I-95 to Houlton are forced onto smaller, secondary roads that pass through cities, towns, and villages, creating safety concerns.

Senator Collins first raised this issue in June during an Appropriations Committee hearing with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who pledged to help address this issue. Senator Collins then worked with her colleagues on the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee to have her provision included in the FY 2010 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill.

The FY 2010 Transportation Appropriations conference report must now receive final approval from both the House and Senate. It would then be sent to the President for his signature. The House is scheduled to vote on Thursday.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Health Care Reform Must Not Hurt Small Businesses

Weekly column by Senator Susan Collins

While the national unemployment rate has fallen ever so slightly to ten percent, the fact remains that far too many Americans are still without jobs, and their families continue to struggle during this economic crisis. Government at all levels must do everything possible to help revive the economy by creating and preserving jobs.

Small businesses remain our nation’s job-creation engine. Here in Maine, more than 97 percent of employers are small business, and nearly 120,000 Mainers work for firms with fewer than 20 employees. That is why I am so concerned about the effect the Senate health care bill will have on small businesses, and in turn, on jobs in our State and nation.

The rapidly escalating cost of health care has been particularly burdensome for small businesses, the backbone of our economy. Small businesses want to provide health insurance for their employees, but many simply cannot afford to absorb double-digit increases in their health insurance premiums year after year. The cost is simply too high.

A small business owner in Maine recently e-mailed me to say that: “I just received our renewal proposals for our company. Of course, the plans are all up anywhere from 12 percent to 32 percent on the three plans that we offer. Each year, we increase the deductibles to try to keep premium increases to less than five percent, and this year is no exception.

“You are right when you say that we need to address the cost of health insurance, NOT create another vehicle to deliver the services. The current legislation, as I understand it, totally misses the mark.”

How does this bill help small businesses? On balance, it doesn't. This is the analysis of many, including the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the nation's leading small business association. In a statement on the health care bill, the NFIB says "this kind of reform is not what we need. “ “New taxes . . . new mandates . . . new entitlement programs . . . paid for on the backs of small business . . . equals disaster,” the NFIB says.

In short, as the title of the NFIB’s statement’s indicates, "The Senate Bill Fails Small Business."

Even where this proposal tries to help small business, it misses the mark. I support the providing tax credits for small businesses to help cover employee health insurance costs, but the credits for small business in the proposal are poorly structured.

Only businesses with no more than ten workers, paying an average of wage of $20,000, can get the maximum tax credit. If a business hires more workers, or pays higher salaries, its credit is phased-out. In other words, this bill discourages small businesses from adding jobs or raising pay. This just doesn’t make sense.

Small businesses want to provide health insurance to their employees as a way to attract and retain good employees. But they are far too often unable to do so because of the high cost.
Not only does this bill do little to address this problem, the bill makes matters worse by imposing $28 billion in new taxes levied on employers with more than 50 employees that cannot afford to offer health insurance.

There is no question that our health care system is broken and in need of reform. I continue to believe that the American public would like to see a bipartisan bill that brings together the best ideas that achieves the goal of lower health care costs, higher value, and better outcomes. That is why I am continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on bipartisan amendments that would make tax credits available to more businesses while eliminating some of the disincentives to hire more workers, as the current bill would do.

Along with Senator Joe Lieberman, I have introduced a package of amendments that would help to constrain costs by improving the health care delivery system. For example, our proposal would penalize hospitals that don’t work to reduce preventable infections, which results in a cost each year of $30 billion to our health care system, not to mention much avoidable suffering. We are also working to create more transparency and more incentives for better health care outcomes, which will in turn, help lower health care costs.

It is critical that the Senate keep working toward an alternative health care reform proposal that reduces health care costs, improves outcomes, and equally important, enhances, not hinders the ability of small businesses to succeed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Senator Collins questions Administration officials on Afghanistan plan

One day after President Obama announced plans to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Senator Susan Collins questioned Administration officials about the way forward. Senator Collins is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that, today, held the first Congressional oversight hearing on the President’s proposal.

Witnesses included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen.

Senator Collins, who has traveled to Afghanistan four times, most recently last August, asked Secretary Gates why the Administration feels it is critical to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan when al-Qaida currently has a presence in as many as 20 countries, including Yemen where an al-Qaida cell launched a successful attack on the American Embassy in September 2008.

“How will it make us safer to invest more troops and more treasure in Afghanistan as long as al-Qaida still has the ability to establish safe havens in other countries?,” asked Senator Collins.

Secretary Gates responded that al-Qaida’s presence in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan is “still the well-spring of inspiration ground for extremist jihadism everywhere. The fact is the inspiration and the guidance and strategic leadership comes from the al-Qaida leadership in that area.”

Senator Collins then questioned Secretary of State Clinton and asked whether she believes the United States can succeed in Afghanistan, given the tremendous obstacles, “despite the brilliance of our leaders, the courage of our troops, and the efforts of the civilian component.”

“Is this an impossible task? We have a corrupt and ineffective government as a partner in Afghanistan. We have seen, in the past two years, even with the presence of NATO troops, the government lose control of much of the country. Can this work?” asked Senator Collins.

“We believe it can. This is a critical question,” Secretary Clinton responded.

Senator Collins has said that she continues to have questions about the impact of deploying more American combat troops to Afghanistan. But she agrees with the President that it is crucial that the U.S. help expand the size of the Afghan Army and that any surge of American troops must be accompanies by a surge in Afghan troops.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Calais border crossing officially opened

Bangor Daily News -
The United States held official dedication ceremonies at its newest border crossing Monday at the port of entry in Calais, the sister port to another new facility on the St. Stephen, New Brunswick, side of the St. Croix River.

Sen. Susan Collins labeled the crossing “our new front door” and said it opened the way to economic development opportunities and reinforced the close relationship between Maine and New Brunswick.

Collins said the project, which will allow all commercial traffic to bypass downtown Calais, used $77 million in federal funding. She said Maine’s congressional delegation members often are called “dogs on a bone” because of their tenacity in seeking funding.

“Our borders must be closed to our enemies but open to our friends,” she said. New Brunswick and Maine share friends, family, medical services and an economy, she said.

The new crossing will alleviate lengthy delays at the Ferry Point and Milltown crossings in Calais, which will remain open for passenger vehicle traffic.

“The congestion and delays there were no longer acceptable,” Collins said. The new port stands on 53 acres while the Ferry Point port, built in the early 1900s, is just more than an acre.