After a neck and back condition effectively ended Dr. Charles Boustany’s career as a surgeon in 2003, he applied for a family health insurance policy with Blue Cross Blue Shield, the same carrier that had provided his practice with coverage for 14 years.
The company initially denied his family coverage because of Boustany’s pre-existing condition.
Unlike most people who are denied coverage, Boustany — now the Republican Congressman from Louisiana’s 7th district — had served on one of the insurer’s physician advisory boards for years, so he was able to contact Blue Cross Blue Shield senior management to argue that his family shouldn’t have been denied coverage because of his health problem.
“They subsequently insured my family,— he said. “It made me think: If I’m dealing with this and I know how the system works, what do other families do?—
Six years later, Boustany has positioned himself on the front lines of the health care reform debate, working with Democrats to find areas of bipartisan consensus on issues such as banning discrimination by insurance companies based on pre-existing conditions.
Boustany, who worked as a cardiac surgeon for more than 20 years before coming to Congress, remained largely unknown on the national scene until September, when Republican leadership tapped him to give the GOP’s response to President Barack Obama’s address to the joint session of Congress.
“I think the reasons behind it were — I’ve been very engaged in health care reform, I’m on the Ways and Means Committee and, as a physician, I brought a level of credibility,— Boustany said.
The address catapulted the soft-spoken, third-term Member into the national arena, but it was comments that he made after the speech on MSNBC that have enhanced his role in the health care debate.
“After I gave the address and I did some subsequent press interviews … and mentioned there was some common ground between Republicans and Democrats on insurance reform,— Boustany said.
Upon hearing Republicans acknowledging publicly that there was common ground on the highly partisan issue, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), half in jest, told reporters that he would be glad to meet with Republicans to discuss those areas where they felt compromises on health care reform were possible.
Boustany seized on the opportunity.
“Steny Hoyer opened the door and so he gave us that opening. We sent a letter saying we were happy to meet with him,— he said.
Boustany asked Hoyer during the 20-minute meeting several weeks ago to give the green light for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to begin meeting and talking about areas where Democrats and Republicans might agree on health care reform.
Hoyer, along with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), approved the idea.
Boustany and fellow Ways and Means member Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) convened the first meeting of the group last week and planned on meeting for a second time today.
While many observers have dismissed the meetings as an exercise in futility, Boustany said he is unconcerned with whether the group ever produces anything substantive.
“I think if we are building relationships across the aisle, that we are not just giving lip service to bipartisanship but actually [having] sort of a willingness to work together,— Boustany said. “It may pay dividends in the future.—
Becerra described Boustany as a substantive and very open lawmaker.
“We are taking a realistic view of this, a long view, but along with that [we have formed] a stronger working relationship and a growing friendship,— Becerra said.
Mark Isakowitz, a partner at the government relations firm Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock and a longtime Boustany friend, said, “Charles has become the textbook example of how a Member has methodically planned his success and achieved it.—
Ex-Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), former ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, helped Boustany achieve one of those goals, pushing Boehner to support Boustany as his replacement on the committee after McCrery decided to make the 111th Congress his last.
After he secured Boehner’s support, McCrery helped Boustany navigate the Steering Committee process and eventually saw him get a seat on the tax-writing committee.
“His demeanor is typically Southern, gentlemanly, [which is] a good package to put out front on the health care debate,— McCrery said. “But he is also tough enough to hold his ground in those talks and hold the Republican Conference’s positions as well.—
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the current ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Boustany’s background provides a unique perspective and his knowledge extends far beyond health care reform.
“As the ranking member of the Oversight Subcommittee, he has been pursuing our agenda aggressively, whether it is protecting taxpayers in seeking hearings on [the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now] or exploring how the poorly crafted Buy American’ provisions are actually hindering job creation,— Camp said. “He has been an important part of our team, and I expect him to continue in that role.—
Boustany predicted he would be involved in tax reform over the next year, but he said he and his staff had focused so heavily on achieving a position on the Ways and Means Committee that he was still deciding where he wanted to take his career in Congress over the long term.
“I want to be influential as a legislator. I think our constituents send us up here to solve apparently very difficult problems,— Boustany said. “I love nothing more than a challenge. I want to dig in before I finish with a career here in Congress — be known as someone who was a really seriously legislator, who had really good ideas and was wiling to work across the aisle to get broad consensus to solve some of these problems the country is facing.—