Reform Debate Is Personal for Schwartz

Posted February 23, 2009 at 5:56pm

After just four years in Congress, Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) is poised to play a major role in the upcoming debate over health care reform.

Despite her relatively junior status, Schwartz has risen to vice chairwoman of both the House Budget Committee and the moderate New Democrat Coalition — positions that have already enabled her to influence how the economic stimulus package addressed health care. The Congresswoman will also be a key player in other efforts to overhaul the health care system, beginning with the fight over the federal budget.

Schwartz has been intimately involved with the intricacies of the health care debate since the early 1990s, when she helped write Pennsylvania’s version of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

But her experience goes back even further. Schwartz had a firsthand look at health care issues from a very young age as the daughter of a dentist who practiced in the family home. She was a social worker by training, worked as a community organizer and started a women’s health center.

Experts cite her willingness to work across the aisle and unusual expertise and passion for health care as reasons why Schwartz is becoming a powerful voice for reform on Capitol Hill.

“She is an objective leader and she wants to hear all sides of an issue to ensure that we are making the best choices in reforming health care in this country,” said Jeri Kubicki, the National Association of Manufacturers’ vice president for human resources policy.

Schwartz is “one of the fastest-rising Members in the House” and is knowledgeable about health care issues and knows how to effectively argue for her views, said Bruce Lesley, president of the children’s advocacy group First Focus.

With Schwartz, “you know you have a champion that can get the issue across the aisle,” added Ron Pollack, the founding executive director of the liberal health care group Families USA.

Debra Ness, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said the Congresswoman impresses advocates with her knowledge of the complicated details of health care, including payment and delivery systems — issues that are too esoteric for many Members.

Schwartz’s efforts at bipartisanship are particularly important in a debate over health care, which has been stymied by partisan division over the years, according to a Democratic health care lobbyist and former high-ranking Senate Finance Committee aide. Given her reputation, it was a “master stroke” for the moderate New Democrat Coalition to give her a leadership role, the lobbyist said.

In a series of interviews, Schwartz laid out her plans for reform, including the push she will make for changes in this year’s budget. The Congresswoman is making the case to House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) that an overhaul of the health care system needs to be a central part of the government’s budget — and her ultimate goal is to achieve universal coverage by the end of the year.

Spratt said he is glad to have the Congresswoman on his side. “At a time when our nation is plagued with budget challenges, we are fortunate that Allyson Schwartz is playing a leadership role on the Budget Committee,” Spratt said. “Allyson shares a commitment to the twin goals of economic recovery in the short term and a budget back on track over the long term.”

As Budget vice chairwoman, Schwartz said, “I play a role in highlighting and scrutinizing the issues that will be a major cost factor and thus must be addressed, including health care.”

Schwartz is fighting for more funding within the budget for development of a comprehensive health information technology system and increased funds and incentives to ensure that there are sufficient primary-care physicians and nurses.

Not only is health care a major budget concern with the costs of entitlement programs spiraling out of control, but, Schwartz argues, a more cost-effective health care system boosts U.S. competitiveness.

Schwartz has already been active on the health care front this year, playing a role in the expansion of SCHIP and insisting that health care was addressed in the $787 billion economic stimulus package.

Schwartz was one of the original architects of SCHIP, dating back to 1992 when she served in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

“Being able to say I was one of the people able to start SCHIP in this country is great,” Schwartz said.

She also worked this year with the New Democrats, House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health Chairman Pete Stark (D-Calif.), Obama’s staff and other committees to help ensure that health IT got sufficient funding in the stimulus. Schwartz also worked with these and other partners to include a system of Medicare-based benefits and penalties to implement the IT system and fought for stronger privacy standards for patient medical data.

Additionally, Schwartz said she was able to get funding to ensure primary physician care for the entire population by extending the incentive and funding program to pediatricians, community health centers and family practice physicians. Originally, the package had only applied to senior citizens.

However, the Congresswoman argues that a number of things were left out of the stimulus that must be addressed in the budget. Schwartz is now making the rounds, trying to increase funds for preventative care and chronic disease management, as well as getting more money for primary care doctors and nurses.

Schwartz is also working to help mold health care reform this year. She said her goal is to make health care “more available, more affordable and more meaningful” — and to get universal health care in place by the end of the year.

Schwartz said any health care reform bill must prohibit insurance companies from excluding children from coverage by applying pre-existing conditions. There also need to be stronger provisions regarding preventative care, she said, so fewer people develop such preventable and expensive ailments as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Furthermore, Schwartz wants better chronic care management so patients can avoid the expenses of emergency room care.

But Schwartz is optimistic. There has already been more progress on health care in the one month since President Barack Obama came into office than in the previous four years she was in the House, she said.