With congressional Democrats considering a number of procedural moves to push health-care reform legislation through the U.S. House, this area's two local legislators are under the microscope on which way they'll vote.
U.S. Reps. Zack Space, D-Dover, and Charlie Wilson, D-St. Clairsville, are both members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, and as of Monday, both were still officially undecided on how they would vote for the latest proposal.
In January Space, who represents Ohio's 18th Congressional district including the northern portion of Athens County, wrote to House Democratic leaders announcing that he would not support the Senate version of the health-care reform legislation.
Space called the Senate version "the most egregious example of politics as usual," and said it included big giveaways to states like Nebraska to buy the votes needed for passage.
"I absolutely refuse to support legislation that provides a windfall for insurance companies out of the pockets of my constituents," Space said at the time.
The criteria for Space's support, he said, are that health-care reform be good for seniors, small businesses and middle-class families in the 18th District.
"In my opinion, the Senate bill is none of these things," Space said. "It will not provide customers with lower costs, it will place a tax on my district's working families, and it plays right into the hands of the insurance industry."
And yet, as House Democratic leadership considers the options, it looks as though Space will be asked this week to support the Senate version of the bill, although he may not have to vote for it directly.
House Democrats are considering using a procedural move that would allow House members to vote on health-care changes without having to vote directly on the Senate version of the bill. The procedure is called a self-executing rule, wherein a Senate-passed health bill would be "deemed" to have passed if House members voted in favor of a rule governing a separate bill with amendments to it.
At stake is a 10-year, $1 trillion health care makeover bill that would cover some 30 million uninsured people, end insurance practices such as denying coverage to those with a pre-existing conditions, require almost all Americans to get coverage by law, and try to slow the rise in the cost of medical care nationwide. The comprehensive legislation could affect nearly every American, from those undergoing annual checkups to those facing major surgery.
Space's office did not return calls seeking comment on Tuesday and Wednesday, although a spokesperson said Monday that the congressman remained undecided.
Both Space and Wilson voted in November to support the House version of health-care reform. Wilson represents Ohio's 6th Congressional district, which includes most of Athens County.
Wilson's office sent a press release Wednesday indicating that he would support the Senate bill if some specific changes were included.
Speaking to members of the AARP at the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington, D.C., Wilson said he has been a consistent supporter of reform that would provide quality affordable health care and accountability for insurance companies.
"I would support the Senate bill with changes that take out the special deals for certain states, like Nebraska, improve affordability for middle class families, and adjust the harmful excise tax on high cost health plans," Wilson said. "I need to make sure that those modifications have been made. I'm waiting for the final language of the reconciliation bill to see the changes for myself before I can commit my vote."
Wilson went on to speak about what he called the importance of health-care reform to the country, his district and particularly to senior citizens and retirees.
"My district, in Appalachian Ohio, has a large senior and retiree population, so I'm really interested in how this reform bill strengthens Medicare and helps our early retirees," Wilson said. "If we don't do anything, the Medicare Trust Fund is projected to be insolvent by 2016. Medicare takes care of our seniors, but it is high time that we take better care of the Medicare program and make sure it remains in the black."
Wilson said the bill would keep Medicare solvent for nine more years.
"We extend that timeline by finally getting tough on the waste in Medicare," he said. "So, as we make services better for seniors, we also fight fraud and waste. Taxpayers should no longer be asked to foot the bill for excessive charges, false claims or other abusive tactics."
He said that reforming health care would help early retirees by creating a temporary re-insurance program, which he said helps offset the costs of expensive health claims for employers who provide health benefits for retirees age 55 to 64.
"Let's be clear: Insurance companies have failed to provide affordable insurance for many Americans, especially early retirees," Wilson said. "In my own district, I know lots of people who retired in their 50s or early 60s " some by choice, some because their company went out of business. Many lose access to their employer-sponsored health insurance and are forced into the private insurance market."
As Americans get older and need health-care even more, Wilson said, the only option for some is private insurance.
"And insurance companies are charging an arm and a leg for that," he said. "We owe it to these retirees to give them a better option."