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Published December 10, 2009, 12:00 AM

Conrad center stage again: Democrat rejects tie to Medicare rates

North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad is back in the national spotlight during the Senate health care debate this week.

By: Kristen Daum, INFORUM

North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad is back in the national spotlight during the Senate health care debate this week.

Earlier this year, Conrad was a member of the U.S. Senate’s “Gang of Six” that hammered out health care reform legislation.

Now, Conrad is among some Democrats who are reluctant to support a deal struck by Senate leadership Tuesday that trades a public health insurance option for expanding Medicare coverage to include those between ages 55 and 64.

Conrad in the past has said he won’t support a health care option tied to Medicare rates, claiming it would hurt North Dakotans because the state has one of the lowest Medicare reimbursement rates in the nation.

“I’m not going to favor something that treats North Dakota unfairly,” Conrad said Wednesday, adding that he wants to see the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the costs involved with expanding Medicare.

“I’m not going to be for something that ties any of these options to current levels of Medicare reimbursement,” he added.

Conrad and fellow North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan are proposing a “frontier states” amendment for inclusion in the final health care package.

Conrad said the amendment would guarantee that the formula for Medicare reimbursement levels would be improved, making it more fair for rural states, like North Dakota.

“We’re saying if you are going to make these changes, we’re just not going to accept North Dakota being treated unfairly,” Conrad said, adding that “we’re negotiating with leadership and our colleagues on that, and we’re getting widespread acceptance.”

If Conrad’s concerns about fairness toward North Dakota aren’t addressed, he said he won’t vote for the legislation.

“Unless we’re fairly treated, of course, I’d vote against it,” Conrad said.

Democrats need 60 votes in the Senate to prevent a unanimous Republican opposition from blocking a final vote on the passage of health care reform. Conrad’s vote could be key in the end result, but he said it’s not going to come down to that.

“That’s not going to happen, because I’m going to be successful in these negotiations, because they know that I’m deadly serious about this,” Conrad said.

Meanwhile, Conrad has come under fire this week by his fellow Democrats and national media for his continued argument that he won’t support any health care option tied to Medicare, because of its unfairness toward North Dakotans.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., said Tuesday that he was “very, very tired” of hearing Conrad’s argument.

“It’s always about North Dakota, and it’s never about any other part of the country,” Rockefeller was quoted as saying. “We’re trying to do the best thing for the country as a whole.”

Conrad said Wednesday that he took Rockefeller’s criticism as a compliment.

“I take that as a badge of honor,” Conrad said. “I’m looking out for North Dakota. That’s the responsibility I have.”

Washington Post political blogger Ezra Klein reported Tuesday that information in the 2009 MedPAC report to Congress debunks Conrad’s argument about North Dakota being disadvantaged by Medicare rates.

According to Klein’s report, rural hospitals are slightly better off than urban hospitals when it comes to costs that are covered by Medicare reimbursements.

Conrad called the findings “nonsense.”

“The Washington Post has been on this trying to debunk the reality of what we confront, because frankly, they don’t care what happens to North Dakota,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541