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Short-Timer Whitehouse Has His Say

Correction Appended

While Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) is expected to be on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee only for a short time, he should have a major effect on health reform.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) chose Whitehouse to temporarily take the place of former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.),now secretary of State, on HELP because of his experience with health care policy at the state level. A Reid aide noted that Whitehouse “was chosen because of his experience and knowledge of issues related to health care, particularly from his work as an official in Rhode Island.—

However, with Sen. Al Franken (D) finally poised to take over the long-vacant Minnesota seat, Whitehouse’s time on the committee will soon be coming to an end — but not before the health debate is finished.

Whitehouse has represented Rhode Island since 2006, when he defeated incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R). Prior to being elected to the Senate, Whitehouse held a number of positions in the state government that he believes helped prepare him for this national health care debate.

“I’m kind of a stealth health care wonk,— Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse is a former Rhode Island attorney general and former director of business regulation, in which he served the role of state insurance commissioner. He also served as a U.S. attorney. Among his responsibilities were helping to establish a statewide children’s health insurance plan, pursuing health care fraud and founding a state health care quality center. As a result, Whitehouse said, he “came into the debate with a very, very strong set of views— on how to overhaul the health care system.

Whitehouse added that he still seeks input from his constituents on health care issues through a number of town hall meetings. There is “an incredible amount of anguish for American families— because of the high costs and limited coverage of the health care system, he said. These meetings help bring home the immediate need for reform.

The Senator believes that health care can be improved through a focus on preventing diseases, changes to the Medicare reimbursement system and an increased investment in electronic medical records. For example, he said, if reimbursements are not changed to pay for quality, rather than the amount of services provided, the costs will “bankrupt us.—

While Whitehouse understands that he is likely to be on the committee only for a short time, he hopes to make a significant impression on Democratic leadership and other committee members.

“I see myself in the role of worker bee, trying to find ways through technical questions and helping be a resource for my colleagues as they seek to find common ground on these issues,— he said. Whitehouse’s hope is that he will make a favorable enough impression so that he would be considered for any future openings on committees that cover health care.

He already has a broad portfolio, serving on the Budget, Environment and Public Works, and Judiciary committees, as well as on the Intelligence and Aging committees.

Thus far, opinions of the Senator’s performance during the health care debate have split along ideological lines. Democrats and left-leaning groups laud Whitehouse as a reasonable voice for health reform, while Republicans and more conservative groups argue that he is too liberal, especially on the issue of medical malpractice reform.

Whitehouse “brings the perspective of a blue-collar state that is suffering from a high unemployment rate— and is calling for the kind of changes needed to help those people, a Medicare advocate said. A lobbyist for the liberal advocacy group U.S. PIRG called Whitehouse a “champion of strong delivery options that are vital to reducing costs and making health care more affordable.—

However, Republicans and conservative lobbyists see Whitehouse as too far to the left on a number of issues. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said Whitehouse is “clearly an anchor on the liberal side of the agenda— but added that this is not out of character for the HELP Committee.

The committee has always attracted more liberal Democrats because of its focus on core liberal issues such as labor, education and health care, Gregg said. “Whitehouse is probably not out of the mainstream— and is likely to the right of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), he added.

But Whitehouse’s strong views on medical malpractice have alienated a number of conservative groups.

Whitehouse is “transparently advocating for trial lawyers— by opposing caps on malpractice damages, a conservative health care lobbyist said. Erica Suares, Senate relations deputy in the Heritage Foundation’s government relations department, agreed, adding that beyond that issue, Whitehouse “did not necessarily shine or play a significant role during this markup.—

But Whitehouse countered that these groups are just advocating for their corporate interests. The push for reforming medical liability “was a clarion call to various political bases to say, We’re going to fight with you for the corporations against the jury system,’— he said.

Correction: July 8, 2009

In the article, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse incorrectly said that he once served as Rhode Island’s insurance commissioner. While Whitehouse served in an equivalent position as the state’s director of business regulation, it was before the state Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner was created.

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