Impact of Kennedy loss on health care debated

Legislators note late senator's work on issue as driving force.

Health care reform, a long and unrealized legislative goal for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was a frequent topic on Wednesday as some congressional leaders and others suggested it be passed as a tribute to the lawmaker, but others said his absence will make that more difficult.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., each talked about the importance of enacting health care reform in their statements about Kennedy.

"Ted Kennedy's dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration," Pelosi predicted.

Hoyer noted that "throughout his final illness, Sen. Kennedy was privileged to have the best doctors and the best treatment. But he never forgot, in this as in all cases, those who were not similarly privileged" like countless uninsured Americans. "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," he concluded.

President Jimmy Carter, whom Kennedy challenged for the 1980 presidential nomination, also called for a renewed push to pass health care legislation.

"That's my hope, and I believe that would really be the culmination for the Kennedy family of acknowledging the great contribution that he's made to our country," he said during an appearance on CNN.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who carried the health care reform torch for Kennedy during his prolonged absence, said on Wednesday he would decide in the coming days whether he wants to replace the legendary lawmaker as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Dodd said he would confer with Senate leaders about his potential switch but said so far he had not "given that a second's worth of thought."

During a call with reporters, Dodd reaffirmed that he will be "deeply involved" in the health care debate moving forward. "One way or another I'm staying on this committee," he said, noting that he wants Kennedy's health care aides to continue their work on the panel.

"It's going to be hard to go back to the Senate. It's going to be hard not to see that phone ring and see that area code pop up," Dodd said, recalling Kennedy's continued involvement in the bill even while battling brain cancer.

National Jewish Democratic Council Chairman Marc Stanley said "the greatest tribute that we can bestow is to thoughtfully, but urgently, enact comprehensive health insurance reform."

Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern said "Congress stands closer now than ever before to achieving what Kennedy called the cause of his life. Let us continue his cause. Let us take action this year to pass health care reform."

Kennedy "was America's health care champion [and] his contribution to health care policy is unmatched," added Karen Ignagni, CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans.

But several of Kennedy's colleagues said they feared that his absence, even in the months before his death, may have made the task too difficult.

"With great respect to all of my colleagues, there is no one right now in the Senate that would have the unique position that Ted Kennedy did," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during an appearance on CBS's Early Show this morning.

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., speaking on the same program, said Kennedy's absence had already hurt reform efforts "because Ted was so immensely knowledgeable."

"Ted wanted to really drill down and say, 'OK, how are we going to get costs down? How are we going to make sure everybody has access to coverage? How are we going to pay for this thing?' Those are the sorts of things he was a master at resolving," said Bayh.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., called Kennedy "one of the more practical members of the Senate" and added that "had his own health allowed him to fully participate, we would be far closer to consensus today on a path to health care in America whose quality provides better outcomes, whose cost is more affordable, and whose access is more broad."