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Interview with Senator Jay Rockefeller

Aired June 25, 2003 - 19:29   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush is pretty upbeat about the chances for adding prescription drug benefits to Medicare. The president met with lawmakers today to encourage support. Now the Senate and House are both working on prescription drug bills. And the main challenge appears right now, to be coming up with a plan acceptable to both chambers. A vote in the House could come as early as tomorrow. While the question of prescription drugs for Medicare is dominating this years health insurance debate. There are other questions as well, such as what to do with people who do not have insurance at all.
Congressional correspondent, Kate Snow, has more on that.

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ben's Chili Bowl is an institution in Washington, a mom and pop joint that serves up half smokes and chili burgers all day. But even a thriving business can come up short. The owners only give health insurance to six of their 18 employees.

VIRGINIA ALI, OWNER BEN'S CHILI BOWL: When you talk about the amount of money that's required per month for a family to insure an employee with a family, a small business can simply not afford it.

SNOW: James Dolo has a 12-year-old son.

JAMES DOLO, EMPLOYEE BEN'S CHILI BOWL: Right now I don't want insurance, so right I'm well, I am (UNINTELLIGIBLE) well, and my concern is what if tomorrow, you know, something happens to me.

SNOW: James is part of a hugely diversion group. The Census Bureau estimates 41 million Americans had no health insurance in 2001, up 1.4 million from the year before. Most work and make too much to apply to Medicaid. Some are between jobs, some are students like Joseph Burns.

JOSEPH BURNS, BEN'S CHILI BOWL: I have car loans and school loans to pay, so it's kind of -- when it comes to my list of priorities, it's not No. 1.

SNOW: President Bush acknowledged the uninsured in his state of the union, but he and Congress put more emphasis on another goal, prescription drug coverage for seniors. Senator Judd Gregg heads the Senate's Health Committee.

SEN. JUDD GREGG (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: They have a much more cohesive group. From a political stand point they have a very strong spokespeople back in everybody's state. Whereas uninsured folks come from a variety of walks of life, and some of the aren't == there's no formal organization speaking for uninsured folks like there is no people who are seniors.

SNOW: First Lady Hillary Clinton pushed for a massive overhaul of the health system 10 years ago and failed miserably, attacked by all sides.

RON POLLACK, FAMILIES USA: Unfortunately, the American public, while it really believes this issue should be addressed, that belief can easily be shaken if they feel they have to spend money, or if their health coverage is going to be diminished.

SNOW: But Pollack says attitudes may be changing as the ranks of uninsured grow larger and more middle class. Politicians will campaign on the issue in the next election, four of the nine Democratic contenders in '04 have already put out detailed healthcare plans. But in the meantime the uninsured continues to cost everyone. James' son hasn't seen a doctor in years.

DOLO: I can't remember it's been a long time.

SNOW: If he gets sick, they'll go to a public hospital, and taxpayers will foot the bill.


SNOW: And that is the status quo, but can it change?

Joining me to talk a bit more about that, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, a leader on healthcare issues in the Senate. Thanks for joining me.

What do you tell James, the man we just saw who has no insurance for the 12-year-old son?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D), WEST VIRGINIA: My heart just breaks in half. His son probably isn't worried about it, but the father is dying over it. And he could break a leg and the father's wiped out.

SNOW: What can Congress -- will Congress do something?

ROCKEFELLER: Congress has chosen to do other things that it thinks is more important. We have our social priorities mixed up. And what we're doing is we're ignoring the uninsured, which is 41 million people, about 25 million of them children. We have no long- term care, except if you're very rich and can afford it or if you're very poor and you're on Medicaid. Those two problems are humongous. We're addressing prescription drugs, which I'm glad, but the two big ones we have totally failed to address are the uninsured and long-term care which affects every American.

SNOW: And Republicans say if you go for a universal health coverage system, it's socialized medicine and you end up rationing healthcare. ROCKEFELLER: That's like saying -- it's pap, it's nothing, it's a lie. It's no socialized medicine. It's exactly the same health system we have. It has nothing to do with nationalizing healthcare.

SNOW: Can you work with this Republican president, though?

Will it take a Democratic president to get it?

ROCKEFELLER: It will take a Democratic president, he talks the talks, but has not put up the money, even for a decent prescription drug benefit. Everybody knows that $400 billion does not cut it for prescription drug benefits, much less universal healthcare, much less long term.

SNOW: Which is the benefits you'll probably vote on tomorrow in the Senate.

ROCKEFELLER: That's correct.

SNOW: And you'll vote against it.

ROCKEFELLER: I will vote against it and strongly, and...

SNOW: What about all those seniors that need prescription drugs?

ROCKEFELLER: Because they're not going to get the prescription drugs. It doesn't kick in until 2006. They don't know that. It's the most confusing thing in the world. One third -- more than one third of all seniors who have, you know, retire plans, healthcare plans with businesses they have worked for, will be cut off.

SNOW: Let me ask you one question about a different subject. The other hat that you wear is that you're the ranks Democrat on the Intelligence Committee here in the Senate. Some big news that CNN is reporting today. CNN's David Ensor reporting that the CIA has discovered in a backyard in Baghdad a components of a key piece that could have been used for nuclear technology for weapons of mass destruction, for developing nuclear weapons in Iraq.

Does that help the Bush administration's case?

Does that seal their case that they were developing, Iraq was developing a WMD program?

ROCKEFELLER: It's premature to say that. I'm familiar with the facts of the situation, but it's premature to say this will help the president. It's also premature to say it falls within the time period in which it would have any effect on the president at all.

SNOW: Can you be any more specific than that?

ROCKEFELLER: We're not dealing with enough information yet that anybody can use wisely.

SNOW: Senator Jay Rockefeller, I appreciate your time. Anderson, we'll send it back to you in New York. COOPER: All right, Kate, thanks very much. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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