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Health Reform Proponents Hope Kennedy Memory Propels Legislation

August 26, 2009

While battling a brain tumor this year, Sen. Edward Kennedy rarely appeared on Capitol Hill.

Despite his absence, the Massachusetts Democrat continued to loom over health care reform, which he called the “cause of my life.”

Kennedy died late Tuesday night, August 25, bringing to a close 46-year Senate career highlighted by numerous pieces of landmark legislation that he wrote or led to passage—many of them affecting the workplace.

Health care reform proponents hope that Kennedy’s legacy will inspire Congress to put the issue back on track when it returns in September.

A representative of the business community, however, said that that the process has run off the rails because Kennedy’s illness kept him away from the Senate. His passion for health care in particular will continue to be referenced in the health care debate. 

In a statement, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said Kennedy had the best doctors and treatment available but always remembered the less privileged.

“[H]e never forgot … those waiting hours in emergency rooms this morning … those who went to sleep last night unsure that they were covered, uncertain that their families could cope with the financial burden of an illness,” Hoyer said. “For their sake, health care reform was the cause of Ted Kennedy’s life. For their sake, and his, it must be the cause of ours.”

Three House committees have passed versions of comprehensive overhaul bills, as has the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Each measure includes a government-run insurance option and an employer mandate.

All the votes were along partisan lines. The Senate Finance Committee continues to work on a bipartisan bill.

Neither chamber met the deadline of passing legislation before the August congressional recess, as President Barack Obama had originally urged.

The effort has reached this juncture because Kennedy wasn’t around to guide it, according to a business lobbyist.

“I don’t think we’d ever be in the mess we’re in today on health care reform if Sen. Kennedy had been in good health,” said E. Neil Trautwein, vice president of the National Retail Federation.

Although known as the “liberal lion,” Kennedy is widely praised for having been a pragmatic and often bipartisan master legislator.

But that attitude was missing when the Senate Health Committee, which Kennedy chaired, cobbled together its health care bill while he was away, according to Trautwein.

Despite months of health care reform meetings between employers, labor groups, insurers and medical care providers sponsored by Kennedy’s office before the measure’s introduction, the final product largely reflected Obama administration health care priorities.

“Had Sen. Kennedy been there to lead that process, we could have had a reasonable bill with business and labor arm-in-arm leading the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Trautwein said.

Trautwein points to last year’s mental health parity bill as an example of Kennedy patiently forging consensus from disparate interests—in this case the business and advocacy communities—that had been at odds for years.

The parity measure requires equality between costs and treatment for mental illness and other medical benefits in insurance plans that offer both. It is just one example of a wide array of Kennedy’s workplace bills.

In the current legislative session, Kennedy was the author of legislation that would mandate up to seven paid sick days each year for American workers. So far, it has received a hearing in the House.

There is a chance that the measure might gain momentum this fall with Kennedy’s passing, according to Mike Aitken, director of government affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management.

But with health care reform, energy and appropriations legislation looming, the congressional calendar is packed.

“Congress is going to look for ways to honor his legacy,” Aitken said. “Whether or not that is enough to move this bill forward, I don’t know.”

Kennedy's absence may slow down the legislative process in the Senate. Democrats now have 59 members, pending the election or appointment of Kennedy's successor. That is one short of the number required to squelch a Republican filibuster.

Kennedy has influenced just about every piece of significant legislation affecting employers and employees over the last four decades.

Kennedy had an opportunity in 1971 to work with President Richard Nixon on health reform. Nixon pushed for what was essentially an expansion of employer-sponsored coverage; Kennedy supported what was essentially a single-payer plan, and lost.

His failure to compromise haunted Kennedy, and he worked the rest of his life to remedy what he called one of his biggest legislative regrets.

Kennedy was poised to lead Congress on the issue again this year before falling ill.

“His absence has been felt on health care reform and other critical issues,” Aitken said. “That is a void that is not easily filled.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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