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Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn talks cancer, health care, leaving Congress

Coburn says he has a rare type of prostate cancer and that he has given a lot of thought to whether he wants to stay in the Senate for the next three years.
by Chris Casteel Published: November 24, 2013
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Q: The safety net would be for people with pre-existing conditions ...

A: Or people who are very, very poor. And so you create a safety net. That's a function of government that it can do, but it can't be managed from Washington. You know Oklahoma could run Medicaid a whole lot better than they're running it now if we get the (federal) government out of it. I mean, we've got innovative ideas, innovative people. We could actually save a lot of money and treat a whole lot more people if the (federal) government would get out.

The assumption behind Obamacare is we know better than you do on how for you to purchase your own health care. And what I would posit to you is that nobody in Washington knows better how to care for your health care.

It's really about freedom. Do I get the freedom to make a choice for me, versus do I need to have a nanny state that will make my choices for me?

Q: Well, if you give people the freedom to not buy insurance and then something happens ...

A: What you have is auto-enrollment and they can default out if they want. So if you create a tax credit to give people the capability to buy a high-deductible policy so when you're on your Harley and you wreck it and you don't have health insurance, the state bought you a $10,000 or $15,000 deductible so the rest of us aren't paying. So you're really spreading the risk.

You're paying for (the uninsured) now. There's no market forces that are driving that. That's my whole point. We didn't have a real market in health insurance. What you had is prepaid expense that — the insurance industry charges you 20 percent to pay your bills. And then we allow all the hospitals to write off what they don't collect.

There's no market. And what we should have done is go more to a market. Markets aren't perfect, but they're better than anything we can design in Washington in terms of health care. Here's the other thing that you have to do if you want to have a real market: There has to be transparency on price. Why is it when you go to the hospital and you get an explanation of benefits, here's what they charge (and) 30 percent of that is what the insurance will allow. But if you didn't have insurance, they'd charge you that upper price.

Well, it's all bogus — the pricing in health care.

Q: Let me ask you this: Is your frustration with this place at an all-time high, or has it always been at an all-time high?

A: Look at the NDAA (the defense bill, which was on the Senate floor last week). There's been no right to offer amendments by any of the regular guys. It's never happened before in the history of the NDAA. What is that about? Is it about that none of us have any good ideas about how to fix the Defense Department?

The Senate isn't working. And the Senate isn't working because it's being run in a way that's designed not to force consensus. And the only time consensus happens is when several of us — like we did on student loans — go around and create a pressure on something that must pass, and we figure out a deal outside of the committees, outside of everything else and bipartisanly, we do something.

If you set up the Senate and let it run, it will itself force consensus.

Q: But that seems to be belied by these votes on the D.C. circuit court judges. (The Democratic majority) can't even get a straight up-or-down vote to fill a vacancy on a federal court.

A: That's not true. We've put in more judges and more circuit court judges than we did in the Bush administration. That's not true. That's the story that's out there. Go look at the facts.

Q: It's also a fact that the Democratic majority basically has to file cloture (to cut off Republican filibusters) on everything ...

A: No, no. That's not true either. You're buying (Senate majority leader) Harry Reid's line. He files cloture when he starts a bill. And then says we're filibustering it. I mean, when we don't vote cloture on the (defense bill), are we filibustering? Or was he filibustering to not allow any amendments?

It's never been run this way.

Q: And that's only because of him, that's not because Republicans ...

A: It's only because of him because if you let the process work, it will work. He can table any amendment. He's got 55 votes. It's that they don't want to have to be responsible to the American public about voting on things that will drive consensus.

I've got 18 amendments (on the defense bill) and I can't get any of them up (for consideration). And they're all related to the Defense Department. There's nothing extraneous about them. Why won't you vote on those? They don't want to take votes on them. It's all about the 2014 election right now.

Here's the point: If you're a U.S. senator, and you can't defend any vote up here, you have absolutely no business being here. To not vote is cowardly.

Q: Have you given any thought to leaving early?

A: Look, I gave thought to not running again (in 2010). Every day I'm up here, I give thought to leaving early. And I give a lot of thought to it now that I've had another health issue.

Q: Do you have some time frame to decide whether you want to ...

A: No, I'm going to wait until February and see what my tests look like and see what I do.

Q: So in February, there could be a chance where you'll say ...

A: I'm not speculating about that. I don't have any intentions other than doing what I'm doing right now. And then I'll look at it and see. ... It has nothing really to do with my health. It has to do with: Can I make a difference? And if we're still sitting in a situation where I could work like crazy, I've got the best staff on the Hill. ... Can this group continue to make a difference that will change what's coming for this country?

And if I don't think they can, and if I don't think I can, why would I stay here?

Q: You mean why would you stay for another couple of years?

A: Why would I stay tomorrow?

by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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