Ted Kennedy's Death a Loss for Democratic Health Care Push

Despite talks of bill named after him, Kennedy's death could be a colossal blow.

ByHUMA KHAN via via logo
August 26, 2009, 7:49 AM

Aug. 26, 2009— -- Ted Kennedy made affordable health care for all Americans the goal of his Senate career and hoped to see that reform achieved in his lifetime. But the political giant's death raises the question of whether a Congressional bipartisan solution can be achieved.

Even though Kennedy's battle cry for health care continued in his absence from the Senate, while he battled cancer, both Democrat and Republican leaders said he was sorely missed and his absence created a huge gap since he was the leader most easily positioned to advance bipartisan negotiations.

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While the Senate's "Liberal Lion's" death could be a colossal blow to a health care reform bill, his memory will likely stay in the forefront of negotiations, and there is already talk of a bill being named after him.

"It was the cause of his life and he fought it all the way to the end of his life," said Kennedy's friend and former press secretary Bob Shrum on ABC's "Good Morning America" today. "Maybe his absence now will cast a long shadow and actually make it happen."

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The corner stone to Kennedy's health care fight was the idea that health care was a basic right, but leading specialists also remember him as a champion of neglected or controversial corners in America's health care system.

"He lent his voice of reason and passion to virtually every major health or health research issue that the country faced in the last 40- plus years. On DNA research, in vitro fertilization, fetal tissue research, and most recently, stem cell research, 'Teddy' was always there," said Dr. Sam Gandy, a professor of Alzheimer's Disease Research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Doctors in the mental health profession have long hailed his efforts to legislate coverage for mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Mental health has long been a Kennedy family concern, as Ted's older sister Rosemary suffered lived in institutions for most of her life.

Dr. David Fassler, of the University of Vermont, called Kennedy "the driving force" behind last year's passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Yet on Capitol Hill, Kennedy will largely be remembered for his unfinished work on the health care policy.

Kennedy's Mission to Expand Health Care

A longtime chair of the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Kennedy called for extending Medicare coverage to all Americans, providing health coverage for the uninsured and modernizing health care systems by using new technologies to cut costs. He also proposed requiring every American to have some form of health insurance, a key point of contention even within his own party.

"I've been able to receive it for myself and my family, just like all of us on the tip of the iceberg. But I want every delegate at this convention to understand, that as long as I can vote, as long as I have a voice in the United States Senate, it's going to be for that Democratic Party platform plank, that provides decent quality health care, North and South, East and West, for all Americans, as a matter of right and not of privilege," a fired-up Kennedy said in 1978 at the midterm Democratic convention in Memphis.

That mantra still rings true with many physicians around the country, but not necessarily with everyone in health care.

"Ted Kennedy was a person of many talents," said Dr. Henry Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a leader in biomedical research and pharmaceuticals.

"He worked hard and passionately to advance the extreme left-wing values that he held, and was known for doing his homework and hiring able staffers," Miller continued. "However, he never let facts or scientific or economic principles get in the way of his socialist ideology and do-gooder mentality."

Still others in the health care field were supportive of his mission.

"Those of us who work in busy, overcrowded emergency departments functioning as safety nets for the millions of Americans who have no insurance coverage know how desperately this nation needs healthcare reform. Ted Kennedy has always championed this cause," said Dr. Joseph Ornato, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Kennedy retreated to Massachusetts following his brain tumor diagnoses in May 2008, but he remained in the fray through op-ed pieces and colleagues said he closely monitored the health care debate in newspapers and on C-Span. Friends said Kennedy's absence from the debate was painful for him and he hoped to be able to partake in the discussions at some point.

Kennedy handed the reins of the health committee to Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who kept in touch with him on Senate proceedings but that became increasingly difficult as Kennedy had problems communicating.

"His committee was very instrumental by passing a health care bill out in June... and he was involved in that," said White House adviser David Axelrod on "GMA." "He was to the end very much interested and very much committed to seeing this become a reality."

Kennedy envisioned a system of universal health care but was willing to compromise as long as the agenda was furthered.

Kennedy's Bipartisan Work

"The essence of his legislative record is that he understood life in the arena meant compromise," Newsweek editor and presidential historian Jon Meacham said on "GMA." "He believed in getting things done."

One example of such compromise was the Massachusetts health care plan. Kennedy, a key architect of the plan, compromised essentially on the single payer plan he was pushing just so the plan would move forward, ABC News Medical Editor Dr. Timothy Johnson said.

"He looked very hard for common ground... He was willing to make a compromise," Shrum said. "He would get as much as he could to try to advance the goals."

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At the height of his career, Kennedy was favorably associated with health care reform. In 1978, when he pushed then President Carter to come up with a national health program, Kennedy was favored by 44 to 25 percent in a Time magazine poll. And in a November 1979 ABC News poll, Kennedy had a 65 percent favorable rating for his ability to handle health care.

"This is the cause of my life," Kennedy said at an emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008 while endorsing then candidate Obama. He spoke of "new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American … will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege."

Kennedy, who staunchly supported President Obama's run for the presidency and hoped to see a bill passed in his lifetime, won't live to see his dream.

The future of the health care reform remains uncertain with deep partisan divides on the measures being proposed. It is likely to be a tough fight ahead in Kennedy's absence, but his voice, while lost in actuality, is likely to stay in spirit.

"His basic instruction was to keep pushing forward," Axelrod said. "I think he believed, and we believe, that there's forward momentum here."

ABC News' Lauren Cox, Gary Langer and Jonathan Karl contributed to this story.

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