ALBANY—Of the three candidates seeking to replace John McHugh in Congress, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava most clearly articulated what she supports and where she'd like a bill reforming health care to go.
I interviewed all three candidates for the seat recently, and tried to make them be as specific as possible about some of the items Barack Obama articulated in his televised speech to Congress on health care.
Bill Owens, the Democratic Party's designee for the seat, laid out four overarching (and non-controversial) principles that he said would guide his thinking on specific provisions. It was like pulling teeth to get Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party's designee, to respond to specific questions. Republican Scozzafava was articulate and comfortable throughout her interview, responding to questions rather than retreating toward talking points.
One thing I asked each candidate was whether they would support the public, nonprofit option that Obama said he wanted.
Owens, who told me the night he was nominated that he did not support a public option, said that it was, as a component of an insurance exchange, something he "would look very carefully at; they seem reasonable as principles."
"My view is that there are a couple of principles that have to be adhered to in coming to a resolution of the health care issue," Owens told me. "I'm not in favor of a litmus test because I think that's one of the big problems in Washington today. I think we need to be able to analyze the bills and make a rational decision about it in line with the principals in the bill.
"As long as they meet the four criteria that I laid out, those are things that I would consider," he said. "Again, I don't want to apply a litmus test, I don't want to apply a label. I want to be able to analyze the information and the bill and come to a conclusion."
(His four criteria are that any bill not add to the deficit or "place burdens on small businesses," bring down insurance costs, provide access to coverage for those without insurance, and ensure those with pre-existing conditions are insured. Owens has said this before, but it's not on his web site, which provides no information about his biography or positions.)
Doug Hoffman was close to an unequivocal no.
"If it was truly competitive I would, but I really worry whether it would be truly competitive," he said. "I'm worried that it would be designed to put the private sector out of business."
Scozzafava wouldn't say whether she would vote against a bill that contained a public option, but expressed concerns "it has the potential to crowd out private insurance companies." While she said there needs to be a "safety net," she believed it should be provided by a non-government entity.
"If we could make private insurance more competitive, then there might be a way for us to find those safety net features through those private insurance companies," Scozzafava said. "I think opening up state lines to allow people to purchase insurance from different states, I think that's one thing that can make private insurance more competitive."
She also pointed to tort reform as something that she thinks should be looked at. All of the candidates agreed on this point (Hoffman was particularly excited about it), but none said specifically what should be done or how much.
Scozzafava and Owens agreed–along with many current members of Congress on both sides of the aisle–that it should be illegal for health insurance companies to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. I can't figure out if Hoffman agrees.
"Basically, everybody feels that people shouldn't be excluded because of pre-existing condition nor should anybody be dropped from a policy," Hoffman said. "Those are great ideals, but to legislate it into a law, it's the entire package that you would be looking at. It boils down to, how much is it going to cost, who's going to pay for it, and are the people that have the insurance now going to suffer–will they pay more or will it drive people out of the private insurance market and force people into the public option. You have to take every question into context with the entire bill, and that's what I'm trying to tell you."
"Every piece does sound very appealing. If you're dividing up a pie and you said, do you want a piece of pie?" He continued. "I'd certainly want a piece of pie. But I'd also want to know what the total bill was before I bought it."
I figured that Hoffman would immediately disagree with, as Scozzafava did, Obama's proposal to charge insurance companies a fee on their most expensive plans. I asked him about this.
"Give me detail," He replied. "He talked. He talked in generalities. President Obama's a great speaker. As you listen to him, everything sounds great. But you need the details behind it. Again, who's going to be for this? Where's the money going to come from? He tried to tell us the other night that it was going to be revenue, cost neutral. I have a hard time accepting that."
"I think it shows very clearly that the president is desperate for funding for this and that it is not revenue neutral," Hoffman continued, before his spokesman Rob Ryan jumped in. (Aides for both Scozzafava and Owens also listened in my interviews with them, but they were silent. Ryan interjected several times, at one time cutting off the candidate.)
"Jimmy, what I was going to say there is, let's say you were going to go on a trip around the world, and the travel agent said, ‘there's going to be a surcharge put on top of this.' Now, wouldn't you say, well, how much is that surcharge going to cost? Look, everything changes when you know the exact numbers. Doug's an analytical, numbers guy. In principle it may sound great, but when you find out the surcharge is 60 percent of the bill that you're paying, it doesn't sound great anymore," Ryan said.
I reminded Hoffman that, with much fanfare, he signed a pledge to not raise taxes.
"Yes I definitely did," he replied. "Well I answered the question for ya. I said it clearly demonstrates that the president is trying to find funding for this bill. So I did answer it for ya, and that's the way that I answered it. I didn't say anything more than that."
On one level, this may be academic. A special election to replace McHugh has not been called (he has not resigned his seat), but the expectation is it will fall on Election Day. It's unclear whether Congress will have agreed upon or passed a bill by then, or whenever the election is called, which would mean that the victor would not be involved in shaping or voting on the legislation.