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Columbia Missourian

9th District congressional candidates share thoughts on health care

By Brian Eason
October 30, 2008 | 4:55 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Vying for a seat in Missouri's 9th District at a time when health care costs are on the rise, State Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, and Republican candidate Blaine Luetkemeyer both emphasize lowering costs and securing coverage for more Americans.

"I believe that we can raise the quality and lower the cost, and that is the first thing we must do," Baker said. "And there are several ways to do that, from being able to negotiate price with the drug companies, to making sure the rest of the world pays for research and development for medical devices and pharmaceuticals, to cracking down on insurance companies that have a lot of waste in the system."

Luetkemeyer and Baker both said shifting to electronic medical records would help save money, driving down costs for patients.

Luetkemeyer said he would support a market-based approach that would encourage more competition among health care providers. He advocates tax credits to enable small businesses to secure coverage for their own employees.

Right now we hardly give small businesses any incentives to find ways to provide health insurance for their employees, and that's how most people get their health insurance is through employer-based plans, Luetkemeyer said.

Luetkemeyer has criticized Baker on the campaign trail for supporting a socialized, "one size fits all," health care system, but Baker has said her plan would promote a public-private partnership in which employees of small businesses that couldn't provide coverage would still have guaranteed access.

As another cost-cutting measure, Baker says she would push for more preventative care.

"It costs a whole lot more to treat cancer after it has become full-blown cancer than if we screen for it in a mammogram and find it early," she said. "If we catch disease early, then it is actually less expensive."

At a candidate forum in Dardenne Prairie, Baker criticized Luetkemeyer for supporting a bill that dropped preventative measures such as immunizations and cancer screenings from coverage plans.

Luetkemeyer responded that the bill was about affordability, calling such mandates the proverbial  "straw that broke the camel's back."

"Yes those mandates are wonderful," said Luetkemeyer, who co-owns Luetkemeyer Insurance Agency. "The problem is, if you keep adding mandate after mandate, there will never be enough dollars in the pot to keep everybody insured."

Baker has cited her experience as an administrator of a number of rural health clinics, and later of MU's University Physicians, as a strength on the campaign trail.

Luetkemeyer's campaign, however, has repeatedly criticized Baker for her stint at the University Physicians, citing a state audit that showed the practice lost $2 million to improper billing and other bookkeeping miscues between July 1999 and January 2002, a time period that overlapped with Baker's tenure.

Baker maintains that she actually renovated a failed accounting system, a claim supported by a 2001 employment letter from the University Physicians' chairman praising her work.

"What had happened was that prior to my being there, there were a bunch of accounts, millions of dollars of accounts, that went unbilled to insurance companies and/or individuals," Baker said, explaining that the accounts were so old they couldn't have collected payment on them. "They were dead, and so we got rid of them off the books. We cleaned up the books, and while cleaning up the books, the audit counts that as a loss. Well, it's not really a loss, because we were actually saving money by not working dead accounts."

Baker's campaign manager, Paul Tencher, added this in an e-mailed statement: "Her former boss, the person that replaced her and the current executive director all have said Judy was part of the solution, not the problem. The audit also doesn't mention Judy once, in the entire audit. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., did the audit and she said this was a false attack."

Luetkemeyer said he has worked with high-risk patients to secure health insurance in the past and would like to see a credit program created to ensure coverage for such individuals.

"I think we need to provide a safety net for those folks who can't find insurance, and we need to find a way to help them get something that they need desperately," he said.