Rep. Heath Shuler was in Asheville on Aug. 28, fielding questions from citizens on the radio and speaking to local businesspeople. He reaffirmed his opposition to health-care-reform legislation currently before the U.S. House of Representatives but said, "We've got to have reform."
The whip for the caucus of conservative Blue Dog Democrats, Shuler spoke at a lunch of the Council of Independent Business Owners and took questions from callers on Matt Mittan's radio show on 570 AM.
"It's emotional; health care is something that we all need," Shuler said. "I want to see a way we can do this through encouraging a better lifestyle."
Shuler reasserted his opposition to HR 3200, the health-care-reform legislation currently before the U.S. House. That bill would require all Americans to have health care, would set up a federal insurance program aimed at driving costs down by competing with private companies, would ban insurance-company practices such as denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and would levy a surtax on households making over $350,000 a year to help pay for it all.
But Shuler said that the bill would increase the deficit too much, doesn't do enough to reduce health-care costs and also doesn't provide enough incentives for individuals to live healthier lifestyles.
"I've sat in front of the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] and pleaded my case to her and the House leadership about prevention, wellness and disease management," Shuler said earlier that day to 200 local business owners at the CIBO luncheon. "We can lower the health costs of this country because we're going to be more responsible for our health care."
However, Shuler did note that achieving a healthier lifestyle would be difficult for low-income families. He recalled taking on the "Welfare challenge": spending no more than $1.15 on each meal for a week.
"I wouldn't have made it without McDonald's cheeseburgers," he said.
Shuler touted the Asheville Project — an initiative that combines education, patient care and pharmaceutical advice to improve the health of those with chronic conditions, thus reducing overall premiums — as a model for health-care reform.
During his 2008 re-election campaign, Shuler received $130,852 in campaign contributions from the health-care industry, more than any other Democrat in the state's delegation. But when a caller brought up those campaign contributions on Mittan's show, Shuler denied that financial backing has affected his decision to oppose the bill.
"No one buys my vote," he replied.
Despite his opposition to the overall bill, Shuler told Xpress after his radio appearance that he supports a list of eight restrictions that limit health-care companies. These restrictions, called for by the White House and part of HR 3200, include prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, requiring companies to fully cover regular checkups and capping a consumer's annual out-of-pocket expenses.
"We've got to reform the system," Shuler said. "When someone changes jobs because of a down economy, they've got insurance, but once their COBRA [a form of temporary insurance] runs out, then they get denied. That's wrong."
While Shuler has spoken to business and civic groups in the area, he has pointedly declined to hold in-person, public town halls on health care, instead opting for "tele-town halls" where constituents call in questions. He defended that decision on Mittan's show.
"A colleague of mine held a town hall meeting, answered 25 questions in three hours, [and] because they had to stop to take time out, people were yelling and screaming," Shuler said. "In just a little over an hour, I answered 24 at my first tele-town hall."
He called the tele-town halls "much more civil" and asserted that by using mass media, he's reached far more people than he would with a standard public forum.