BlogHers Talk Health Care with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (AUDIO)

BlogHer Original Post

With this week's release of the Senate's health care reform bill, the timing couldn't have been better for BlogHer's chat with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Women bloggers discussed the new bill, as well as Stupak, breastfeeding, and even childhood obesity and food safety.

You can listen to the audio:

You can also read the transcript:
**start transcript**

Nancy Watzman: Welcome everyone. I'm Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation representing BlogHer Today and their Community Journalism Initiative on Healthcare Policy.

The sunlight foundation is a non-partisan, non-profit dedicated to using the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency. As CEO, Lisa Stone announced BlogHer has been sponsoring a bipartisan series of telephone conference calls to connect women bloggers directly with their legislators.

Today on the call we have Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. And she'll give a brief introduction of herself and then we'll go straight to question and answers. I know that we have a lot of people on the line.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Hi everybody, can you hear me?

Nancy Watzman: Yes. There's a bit of an echo, for me.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Okay. I'll get closer to the phone. Well thank you all for being part of this call. I'm very appreciative of your time. And I'm appreciative of your advocacy. The work that you do on so many of the blogs throughout the Internet are so important to the advocacy that's important to me, so I'm very grateful for your outreach.

Today we're going to talk about healthcare. I'd like to give you a brief introduction about what happened in the bill. But before I start, I really want to thank the host, the Sunlight Foundation. And I want to thank you particularly Nancy for your leadership.

As you guys know, I was the first congress member to post all my earmark requests, my schedule and my financial disclosure on my Web site. I was the first member to do that in the history of congress. And interestingly, once I did it, a bunch of other freshman congress members did it. And within two years, Speaker Pelosi decided that everybody had to put their earmark requests online.

So, you know, sometimes you don't think that change happens, but it really can, through advocacy and hard work; and that's exactly what the Sunlight Foundation has demonstrated.

We got our bill last night from Senator Reid, and it's, you know, the bill's not perfect. It's got a lot of things that I think need improving. But it's got some important pieces that I think makes this bill passable by 60 votes. It's got the public option, and it's a small public option, and not what I would like. I would prefer a Medicare for all approach.

But it has a public option which means it'll pass the house, and it doesn't have the Stupak language in it, which would have made it very difficult for a number of senators to vote for it. So keeping that language out is great. It really just continues Hyde, meaning that no federal money can go for abortions.

Some of the things that were disappointing; I would have liked a robust public option; I would have liked a Medicare for all where anybody could buy into Medicare at 5% of income. Because I think that's a good framework, Medicare only has a 3% overhead. You'd have to fix some reimbursement rates in Medicare, because a lot of our doctors and hospitals suffer from low reimbursements. But for the most part, it's a - would have been a good framework. And 5% of income is always affordable.

The affordability provisions in this bill aren't bad. They basically say you don't have to buy insurance if nothing's available at 8% of your income. And that's very helpful because that number could have been as high as 12%, and I think that's unaffordable. So I think the 8% number's good.

Some of the large structural changes that are in, that are really important; no-one gets denied coverage because of preexisting condition, no one goes bankrupt because of one illness, and all preventive care is covered.

So we had a provision that would have better on preventive care that Senator Mikulski had that would have made all preventive care for women's health entirely free. But the CBO scored it as too expensive so, we weren't able to get it entirely free. (Unintelligible). So there's going to be a subsidy, but you still have to pay a copay. So it's not ideal, but at least it covers the preventive care, which I think is so important.

So you know, what we're going to do going forward, as the Leader put it on the floor, we're going to now start the process of amendments. We're going to - we could have as many as 500 amendments, like they had in the Finance Committee.

But the Leader said that he's going to try to keep the amendments, you know, have one abortion amendment, one Acorn amendment, one, you know, keep one amendment for each major issue. And I'm hopeful that we will defeat all those amendments that are not good for America.

So I'm hopeful that we're going to get this bill done. I think we'll get it done by Christmas. And then I think it will go to conference, and they will, you know, try to merge the two bills. I think our abortion language will stay in, because a lot of House members have said that they will not vote for a bill if Stupak's in it, and I think that will ruin their majority. So I think our language will stay in. And I think the public option will definitely stay in, because that's mandatory for the House side. And we'll have the beginning of healthcare reform in this country. And I think it's a great first step. It's only a first step. I think that, you know, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security; none of them happened in a day. This is not going to happen in a day either; it's going to require reform, and revision over the next ten years. And I hope I'm in the Senate that long so I can really be part of that, to make sure we protect women and that we protect Americans in the healthcare that they need.

Nancy Watzman: Okay great. Let's go to the first question. Do we have a first caller on the line?

Operator: Yes, thank you. Ladies and Gentlemen, if you'd like to register a question, please press the 1 followed by the 4 on your telephone. You'll hear a three tone prompt to acknowledge your request. If your question has been answered and you'd like to withdraw your registration, please press the 1 followed by the 3.

If using a speakerphone, please lift your handset before and during your request. Or you can also submit a question via the Chat feature on the bottom left of your screen.

And our first question comes from the line of - from Line Number X195. Please proceed with your question.

(Danine): Hi, my name is (Danine) and I'm calling from Wisconsin. And I'm calling - my question is about the public option. We haven't really heard a lot about it. Who will be eligible for the public option? What will it look like? What will the premiums be? What will the copays be? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kirsten Gillibrand: Yeah. This is the detail we have so far. First of all it's voluntary, so nobody has to use the public plan. States can opt out if they want to, but it does require a vote by their legislature -- which is a good protection I think, than just a governor being able to say, "We're opting out." Because if that legislature for example votes against having a public option, then hopefully the people of that state can elect them out in their next election.

The rates that are negotiated, the public option will negotiate rates just like any other provider. So that means that it's not going to be a cheap. You know, if you had a Medicare for all, where you could buy it at 5%, that's just cheaper. So it's not going to be very cheap. Because if you're just with the same as all other providers it probably won't be as inexpensive as we'd like.

But Sebelius, who's our Secretary of Health and Human Services, she will determine the rates. She will determine how much it costs, she will determine what copays will be, and you know, what deductibles will be. And let me ask my staff; when does she have to do that by? Is there a deadline for - yeah. This doesn't put - go into place until 2014.

Nancy Watzman: Okay, does that answer your question?

(Danine): Okay, so did you say that this will not be very cheap, so it will be - will it be comparable to your average policy? Or will it be less or more expensive? Will it be…

Kirsten Gillibrand: It will probably be comparable to the policies that are on the exchange. Because they have to negotiate rates, just like anybody else, their cost will likely be comparable.

It will create competition. And it will drive down cost. But it's not as, I think, as exciting as a Medicare for all, where you would really drive down cost.

(Danine): Okay. So…

Kirsten Gillibrand: And the other thing that is beneficial about the public option, which is why so many of us fought for a public option; they don't have any overhead. There's no advertising budget, there's no CEO salaries, and there's no margin for profit. And so because they don't have those affects, it will lower cost, and it will create competition. So I do think it will work in the way that people have imagined the public option will work. I think it will work over time to bring those costs down.

(Danine): Okay. Thank you.

Nancy Watzman: Okay. So we have another caller on the line. We'll go to them.

Operator: As a reminder, to register a question, please press the 1 followed by the 4 on your telephone. Our next question comes from Line Number X397. Please proceed.

Woman: Hi. I realize that you're a proponent of breastfeeding, you breast fed your son well beyond the recommended standard. Breastfeeding can be shown to reduce childhood obesity, among its other benefits. Given that it can be looked at as the first step in preventative care that lasts a lifetime, how can it be part of healthcare reform? And what is the status of the Breastfeeding Promotion Act?

Kirsten Gillibrand: Well I agree with your statement that breastfeeding is very good for children. I think it - there are a lot of studies that show its - it promotes healthy eating, it limits obesity in children that are breast fed. It provides the immunities that regular milk doesn't offer.

But not all women can breast feed. So you want to make sure that women have choices about what they want to do for their child. But I breast fed because I thought it was important. And my mother breast fed me, so it's been our family tradition.

But I think what's important is that you have to provide information. If a woman did not grow up in a family where her mother breast fed, there's going to be no one to encourage her to breast feed. The most encouragement I got to nurse, was from my mother. So if you don't have a mother who nursed, then you might not have that encouragement.

So some of the things we want to do is to train doctors, to train pediatricians, to train advocacy groups. And to encourage employers to have lactation consultants that come in and meet with employees. To have lactation rooms, so there's a place for if a woman is nursing, but she's working, where she can go and pump to bring breast milk home to her baby.

So those are the kinds of - of - of - of innovations that we really need to promote breastfeeding in people's businesses and among families, so that they have someone to encourage them. Because sometimes breastfeeding's difficult. It's not always easy, and if you don't have someone encouraging you, often times moms will give up.

So I think it has to be a very comprehensive approach, with a lot of education. It also is related to an issue that's very important to me, which is the childhood obesity issue. When I went to a health center in the Bronx, what I thought was so important, was that the doctors were getting women when they are pregnant to start teaching them about nutrition. To encourage them to nurse, and then to teach them what foods their children should eat to stay healthy. And that a fat baby isn't necessarily a healthy baby, but an actual - feeding them proper foods is what needs to happen.

So a lot of the things I've been working on right now is tackling childhood obesity. And I have a very comprehensive program to do that with (be any chance that) making sure we pay more for our school lunches, to be able to afford more whole foods, more fruits, more vegetables, more whole grains and less processed meats and processed foods. And giving, you know, more investment to communities that get the kids active, outdoors, being athletic.

And also focus on giving the USDA authority to look at all the foods in a school -- not just what's served at the lunch counter, but also what's served in the vending machines. And I think those changes overall will make a big difference for giving parents the tools they need to keep their kids healthy. I also think we should have mandatory gym time for public schools, an hour a day.

And I also think we should have mandatory nutrition education, so kids just know what is good to eat. Because a lot of kids just don't.

((Crosstalk))

Kirsten Gillibrand: And you asked about the bill specifically, I'm a cosponsor of the Breastfeeding Promotion Act with Carolyn Maloney, which encourages breastfeeding through, you know, promotion and through education. I don't know when that'll be on the floor, but I'll research it and find out which committee it's in, and when it expects to come out of the committee.

Woman: Thank you so much.

Nancy Watzman: Okay. Let's go on to the next caller.

Operator: Our next question comes from the Line Number W998. Please proceed.

Erin Kotecki Vest: Hi, this is Erin Kotecki Vest I am with BlogHer. I'm glad to hear what you had said about breastfeeding. But I'm a little curious, because you said some of the - a lot of the women's issues didn't necessarily make it into this final senate bill. Will you be introducing any amendment? Do you see maternity care or any of those things on there?

Kirsten Gillibrand: Well I'm working with Senator Mikulski right now on that very issue. Because some of the things that Senator Mikulski wanted included, she wanted to have all preventive care covered so it will be free. Because when women don't get their pre-cancer screenings, the incident rate of ovarian cancer and, uterine cancer, and breast cancer is much higher.

So we want to have that covered completely, to really encourage preventive care to keep women healthier longer. So that was taken out, because CBO scored it and said it was too expensive. So Senator Mikulski and a number of the women are now working on what amendments we can offer to try to get the votes necessary to put that back in.

Preventive care though, is covered in the bill, we just would have to have a copay. And so we want to have no copy, so that there's no excuse for a woman to not get that mammogram, or not get that pre-cancer screening. Not get her Pap smear, for example, every year.

Erin Kotecki Vest: You know… go ahead Nancy.

Nancy Watzman: Sorry, I was just going to follow-up to that, because obviously that speaks to the recent study about mammograms. I was wondering if you had a position on that, or?

Kirsten Gillibrand: Well the study concerned me, because it created a lot of confusion for women all over the country.

And I think what needs to happen, and I've written a letter to Secretary Sebelius asking her to provide clarity to the American public about what is recommended. Because the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is one - an outside independent panel of doctors and scientists who make recommendations, but they do not set a federal policy, and they don't determine what services are covered by the Federal Government.

I don't want to have insurance companies have an excuse to stop offering coverage for mammograms for women in their 40s. And not offer coverage for a yearly mammogram because the recommendation was for every other year in the 50s. So I have concerns, and I think it's important that we create a body of review. Because the American Cancer Society does not agree with the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

So Sebelius came out yesterday and she is basically saying mammograms have always been an important lifesaving tool in the fight against cancer, and they still are today. And she said, specifically she says, "Keep doing what you've been doing for years; talk to your doctor about your individual history, ask questions and make the decisions that's right for you."

So she is pushing back on some level. I'm going to ask her to take an even stronger role, because I'd like her to create the clarity and create a body of advice to give American women. And I want her to bring together the experts to make that determination.

Nancy Watzman: Okay. Let's go on to the next question.

Operator: Our next question comes from Line Number 20 - X208. Please proceed.

(Gina Carroll): Hello, this is (Gina Carroll), I'm calling from Houston, Texas. And your response just really covered my question, because my questions were related to the new announcement by the federal panel regarding testing. I guess my biggest concern is in the informational realm; the fact that the study is saying that the risk of the testing doesn't justify regular testing in that way.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Right.

(Gina Carroll): I'm wondering how, you know, we can undo that damage. Because there are a lot of women out there who (unintelligible) to have that justification, and really do have a fear about the risk of testing.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Right. Well, you know, I didn't even know about the risks of testing for myself. You know, I just did a public service announcement, it's urging women to get their yearly mammogram. I'm 42, I've had two so far. My doctor wants me to have another one this year. I'll get mine, but you know, I didn't know what risks there were. No one told me there was a risk with getting a mammogram every year.

So, there's a lot of misinformation, and I'd like to know what the risks actually are now. And you know, am I endangering myself by getting mammograms? I just don't know. So I think the confusion that's been called is doing a grave disservice to American women.

And I think it's important that Secretary Sebelius take a leadership role here, and create clarity so women know what the risks are, and they can weigh those risks with their doctor, and make a determination what's best for them.

Nancy Watzman: Okay. Does that answer your question?

(Gina Carroll): It does, thank you.

Nancy Watzman: Okay, so on to the next caller.

Operator: Ladies and Gentlemen, as a reminder, to register a question, please press the 1 followed by the 4. Our next question comes from Line Number X397. Please proceed.

Woman: Hi, I'm the one that asked about the Breastfeeding Promotion Act. I had a follow-up question.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Okay.

((Crosstalk))

Woman: …center case that just went through the Supreme Court this year found that breastfeeding is not a condition related to pregnancy, which is just ludicrous. Is there a way to undo that damage through the healthcare reform?

Kirsten Gillibrand: I know nothing about that decision, could you email my staff the information and I'll review it? But that sounds very alarming to me. How could breastfeeding not be related to pregnancy?

Woman: And, I know, it was a split decision, and of course the female justices were a little alarmed that they weren't tackling that issue. The issue was that a breastfeeding mom was fired for pumping without permission to pump.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Unbelievable, unbelievable. That makes me so angry. Let me give you my Healthcare Allies email, it's Shari -- S-H-A-R-I_S-W-A-A-L-E-Y@gillibrand, G-I-L-L-I-B-R-A-N-D.senate.gov. If you could email her, we'll be in touch because that is extremely alarming to me and I'll come up with an idea about how to fight back on that.

Woman: Thank you so much. Can I read that email back to you?

Kirsten Gillibrand: Yep.

Woman: It's shari_swaaley, S-W-A-L-L-E-Y.

Kirsten Gillibrand: S-W-A-A-L-E-Y. Two A's.

Woman: A-A-L-E-Y, okay, thank you so much.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Welcome.

Nancy Watzman: Okay, Senator Gillibrand, I would like to ask a quick question on Sunlight Foundation's behalf, which is, you know, you spoke at the beginning eloquently about the importance of transparency and how - I'm just curious how you see its role in the current healthcare debate and whether you think the process has been transparent enough? And whether you think there should be any improvement?

Kirsten Gillibrand: Yeah, I think the process has been transparent enough. You know, the process is very traditional. You know, you take a bill through the Finance Committee, take a bill through the Health Committee. Those committees get to work on what their bill will look like. They issue those bills, everybody gets to review them. Then Senator Reid takes the two bills and creates a compromise.

The compromised version - between the two committees, the compromised version is now out and publicly available. It's going to be online, it's going to be read out loud. I'm going to put it on my Web site so my constituents have an easy button to push if they want to read it.

It's not as long as people think it is. They say it's 2000 some odd pages, but it's like double spaced, big fat print. It would be much smaller if it was normal print, it would be like, I don't know, 500 pages. But, you know, something that's well worth reading and going through. Particularly for advocates, you know, who know what the fine print means, how it will actually affect policies.

And so we're going to have it online for quite awhile before we have to vote on it. And in fact, I don’t think we're going to vote on it until after Thanksgiving, so we'll - everyone will have more than a week -- more than 10 days even -- to sit down and read it.

And then we'll also have three weeks of debate. So that will, you know, to do all those amendments. That will give us additional time to poke and prod it, and see what's good, see what's bad, and then come up with amendments to fix whatever we think's wrong in it. So I think the process is okay, it's just a traditional process.

((Crosstalk))

Nancy Watzman: I'm sorry?

Kirsten Gillibrand: Do you think it's not okay, did you feel you didn't get enough…

Nancy Watzman: Well, you know, (Kris) we’re concerned that the legislation, you know, any final version obviously would be available for at least 72 hours before any kind of debate. So, you know, if the bill changes again, you know, it always ends up being at the very end obviously, when things change quickly and things get rushed and then it's not available. So, you know, that would be our big concern.

Kirsten Gillibrand: There will be 72 hours before the cloture vote on the final bill on the final bill. So you will get 72 hours to see all the amendments and what it finally is going to look like.

Nancy Watzman: Right. Well, we'll be watching.

((Crosstalk))

Nancy Watzman: …just one more question? Next caller.

Operator: And our next question comes from Line X195, please proceed.

Woman: My question actually goes a little bit back to - Nancy's question about the bill being available for 72 hours, (unintelligible) was the Stupak language, and how it was inserted. It seemed to be inserted right before the final vote. Some of the (unintelligible) are really, really concerned that, you know, with its - you know, there's been some concern that Senator Hatch may introduce similar amendments.

How worried to we need to be about that? Are the votes there to add it?

((Crosstalk))

Kirsten Gillibrand: I don't think the votes - I don't think he's got 60 votes. He will offer an amendment, it will be Stupak, and I do not think he has 60 votes. And my job is to make sure that the Senators who are Democrats do not vote for it, particularly the Conservative Democrats, because if their view is they want to continue - excuse me - in they're view. I'm sorry I've got a terrible cough.

If their view is they want a continuation of Stupak, this goes far beyond Stupak. And so I'm going to try and make that case to them one-on-one, so we don't have - excuse me, it goes far beyond Hyde. So I'm going to make case to them one-on-one that they should not vote for any amendment. Whether I'll be successful or not, I don't know, but they - I do not think they have 60 votes. We've been counting it for a while and no one believes we have 60 votes to overturn what Harry Reid put in the bill.

Woman: Okay, so what should we be doing?

Kirsten Gillibrand: I think you should be lobbying the Conservative Senators.

((Crosstalk))

Woman: So that would be …

Kirsten Gillibrand: Conservative Democrats who have sometimes voted for pro-life bills, I would lobby them and tell them, particularly if you can get people from the state, to call and to write and do letters to the editor, do television interviews, you know, blog; whatever you can do to get your views know, so that your Senator in your state says, "Well, you know, there's quite a groundswell against Stupak, and they feel comfortable with Hyde."

So that is what needs to happen. We need to get our advocacy ringing loud and clear in the states where those votes are still in question.

((Crosstalk))

Nancy Watzman: Okay, I think we have one more question. We'd like to squeeze in, so…

Kirsten Gillibrand: Last one?

Nancy Watzman: …why don't we go to that. Next - the next caller.

Operator: Our next question is from Line W998, please proceed.

Erin Kotecki Vest: Hi this is Erin Kotecki Vest again from BlogHer. I know that you've talked a bit about preventative care and preventative measures when it comes to this stuff. And one of the things that you've championed is food safety, as well as the child obesity issue. Can you talk a bit about food safety and why it's so important in all of this?

Kirsten Gillibrand: Yes, it's a huge concern. You know, 1 in 300 lots of ground beef have E.coli in it. If you get ground beef that has E.coli it can result in death. Thousands of children are made sick every year throughout America, and a number of people die.

So my concern is that we need better testing of - the meat is not tested before its ground, so it's very hard to trace where the bad meat comes from. And it's not acceptable for producers to send out meat that has E.coli and just say well it needs to be cooked at 160 degrees, or whatever the number is.

So what I'm - I have a bill, it's called the E. Coli Eradication Act that will require testing before, and I introduced it yesterday, it requires testing before meat is ground. And then one more time, it requires two levels of testing before grinding and after grinding. So that we know that the meat that reaches our kitchen tables, our school cafeterias, our family's homes is safe.

We also have to better by our schools. There is very little notification if the - if a supplier has tainted foods or if there's been a recall; our schools are the last to know. They are not notified if there's a recall of a product nationwide.

And so it mandates recalls going straight to the school. It also mandates that where you buy your meat, or buy your produce, that there has to be a sign right where you buy it on your supermarket shelf.

So if you buy hamburger and there's been a recall and you go to the freezer section, and it says, "This kind of hamburger meat was just recalled," you will know to go back to your own freezer and make sure you don't have any old hamburger meat there, so you can throw it away. So that kind of notification, I think, will make a big, big difference.

The FDA is not testing any fruits and vegetables, but we also have a bill, the FDA Modernization Act that I co-sponsored, and it passed yesterday through committee, and that will change that. So we'll have testing of E.coli of all our meats, we will have testing of fruits and vegetables through this new bill. And I just think that will go a long way to keeping our kids safe and keeping the food that they eat safe.

Our parents need a lot more tools, they need a lot more notification. And it needs to be more transparent because when a child gets sick, you know, the facts can be devastating. You know, the New York Times story about a month ago, where it talked about a young woman who was a dancer who had a bad hamburger and she's now paralyzed from the waist down.

I met with some physicians and they told me stories about 6 month olds, and 6 year olds coming into their emergency rooms, and then barely surviving because of tainted food. So it - you know, anything can be tainted. It could be peanut butter, it could be fruits and vegetables, it could salads, it could be chicken, it could hamburger, anything, and we need to do better.

And these processes we have in place are 100 years old. So we need to do better. We need to revise our processes, and reform them so the food we feed our children, and our families, is safe.

Nancy Watzman: Okay. Thanks so much Senator Gillibrand. That wraps up today's call with Senator Gillibrand and BlogHer. Thank you for participating and thanks for bloggers for joining us.

((Crosstalk))

Kirsten Gillibrand: Thanks so much, really appreciate it.

Nancy Watzman: So no, yeah, definitely. Please keep an eye on blogher.com for the audio and transcript of this call and an announcement of any new calls.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Thank you.

Nancy Watzman: And we will - to give everybody another opportunity to talk about healthcare reform with legislators.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Great, thank you so much.

Nancy Watzman: Bye-bye.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Take care.

Operator inro and outro have been removed.

**end transcript**

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