Ex-Senators on both sides of aisle join forces on Health Care

WASHINGTON — As a Republican senator, Trent Lott was among those who successfully dug in against the Clinton-era health overhaul. Tom Daschle, then the Senate Democratic leader, fought Republicans on their prescription drug plan. John B. Breaux, a centrist Democrat who led a blue-ribbon Medicare commission, often found himself at odds with both parties.

Now these three retired Senate powers are combining to push an expansion of tele-medicine as a way to improve health care access and cut costs. They say the idea of using the nation’s growing digital capacity to provide more health care has significant bipartisan support and could be an solution to the partisan schism over the Affordable Care Act.

“They have been fighting so long on the A.C.A.-Obamacare,” Mr. Breaux said during a joint interview with the three. “To have something we can all agree on is an opportunity to say yes, we can come together on health care.”

In their post-Senate careers, the three former lawmakers have relocated to K Street, home to lobbyists, and are working on behalf of the Alliance for Connected Care, a nonprofit collection of health care providers, insurers, pharmacies, technology firms and telecommunications companies, to pursue legislative and regulatory changes to let more Americans essentially get much of their health care remotely.

They are beginning an effort to raise the profile of their initiative in a series of events this week and have won participation from high-level lawmakers such as Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, who leads the Finance Committee; Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the senior Republican on the Commerce Committee (and the man who defeated Mr. Daschle in 2004); and several House Republicans.

All three former lawmakers said they became interested in the potential of digital technology to deliver health care when they were representing states with pockets of poverty, where access to health care can be difficult for geographic and economic reasons. Mr. Daschle, who enlisted his former Senate colleagues, said the health care industry is lagging in its embrace of technology for remote diagnosis and care.

“You look at any other aspect of our economy and digital applications are so much a part of it,” Mr. Daschle said.

The goal is not immediate legislation; they are trying to build a consensus to move forward with a focus on winning insurance reimbursement for remotely delivered care, while putting in place safeguards against fraud in the still emerging field. Success may take some time.

“I don’t get involved in things now where somebody says, ‘We need to get this done in 30 days,’ ” Mr. Lott said.

If anyone still knows how to play a long game in Congress, it might be these three. Between them they have accumulated more than 100 years of service in the House and Senate. All of them have experienced ups and downs in their careers, were in and out of the majority and remain influential voices in political and policy circles.

They all shake their heads at the current state of the polarized Senate. Though they share the notion that things have gone off the rails, they offer different perspectives on the solutions.

Mr. Breaux said the leadership of the two parties does not communicate. Mr. Lott said he thinks the Senate needs to return to regular order, put bills on the floor, work through amendments pushed by both parties and find a way to lessen the impact of the often politically charged votes.

“It’s always ‘gotcha’ time when you have amendments, but we always found a way around it,” Mr. Lott said.

To Mr. Daschle, the Senate needs to just work. Period. Fund-raising and hectic travel schedules have senators flying out of town early and returning late. What used to be a challenge, to get lawmakers to stick around late in the week for votes, has become impossible, Mr. Daschle said.

New York Times
5/20/14