Video: The matter of choice in health care

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    >>> of that this hour.

    >>> but where we begin tonight is with a mystery solved. why if you're a democratic member of congress you would want to fight tooth and nail against your own party on the biggest issue facing the country right now. there are as many different solutions to that mystery as there are conservative democrats in congress. but for the man who's become the poster child for democrats blocking their own party's efforts to reform health care , for the lead conservative blue dog democrat on health care , for the house's most vocal democratic opponent for a public health insurance option, a public option that's favored by a democratic president, majority of people in the country, by the majority of people in his home state, and according to new polling, by the overwhelming majority of democrats in his own district, for congressmen mike ross of arkansas , the mystery may allegedly at least perhaps be solved. today politico published investigative reporting about mike ross by a reporter named marcus stern . he reported it for pro publicia. if you're looking for a possible explanation from mike ross ' stance against his own party and his own constituents on health reform , consider this -- in 2007 mike ross and his wife had a piece of property to sell. it was a pharmacy that they owned and operated in prescott, arkansas . a small town that's about 100 miles southwest of little rock . at the time the county estimated the value of that property at about $263,000. an independent appraisal done recently puts the current value even lower than that, at about $198,000. but when it came time to sell, mike ross sure did beat the odds. despite that assessment at $263,000, despite the independent appraisal at $198,000, mike ross sold that property for $420,000. cha-ching. the only licensed real estate broker in that town was just as surprised as you are right now. he told propublica, quote, you can buy half the town for $4250,000. who was the buyer who gave congressman ross such a sweet deal? it was a company called usa drug , the 15th largest drugstore chain in the country. if getting 60% more than estimated value of the property seems a little fishy to you, you may have a future crier in arkansas property assessment because it seemed fishy to the county's assessors as well. when they heard someone was paying $420,000 for that property, they actually called the person buying it, they called the company. they called usa drugs' headquarters essentially to make sure there hadn't been some mistake. there wasn't a mistake. some drugstore chain apparently just wanted to pay this congressman an extra $150,000, $200,000 for his property. and usa drugs' payments to congressman ross and his wife did not stop there. on torch of the $420,000 they paid for the property, usa drug also paid the rosses between $500,000 and $1 million for the assets of the pharmacy. in addition to that, they paid congressman ross ' wife between $100,000 and $250,000 for signing a noncompete agreement . the company also then kept mrs. ross on as an employee at the property after the sale. all-told, mike ross and his wife made between a million and $1.6 million. again, off a piece of property assessed to be worth $260,000. not a bad day's work. and what's more, two weeks after the sale was complete, the owner of usa drug sweetened it even further, made a $2,300 contribution to congressman ross ' campaign. that was the most that an individual could give in 2007 . congressman ross raked in more than $342,000 from health-related interests overall that year alone, more than he got from any other business sector. since then congressman ross not only opposed the public option, despite what his constituents say they want, he also pushed for language in the health care bill that would protect drug companies for having to negotiate for drug prices. we invited congressman ross to come on the show tonight to explain all of this, to explain whether there's a connection between the final largeous he has enjoyed from the health industry and his political positions in favor of those interests and against health reform . congressman ross declined our invitation. his office did provide us a statement which reads, in part, quote, instead of having civil dialogue over true and substantive disagreements, outside groups are trying to taint a completely legal and respected small business that my wife and i worked hard for 14 years to establish. i welcome any debate and review on my voting record and my positions on the issue. congressman ross , it should be noted, is not denying the substance of this reporting but he does point out that he disclosed all of this information on his financial statement . he said this is just got you politics. the congressman's full statement has been posted at our website today, rachel .msnbc.com if you would like to see it. also, congressman ross , if you're watching, i hope you will reconsider your decision not to pear on this show to talk it over. i promise you will get a fair hearing. the stance behind this health care reform is not the least of his political worries but it is one worry among many. the group change congress is hitting the kongman with an ad now highlighting the more than $900,000 in contributions he's received over multiple years from the health industry. the political action committee , fdl action, which is an outgrowth of the group fire dog lake, is running this ad against congressman ross , threatening a primary challenge against him. and today fire dog lake kicked their campaign up a notch, threatening to not only run this ad online, on the internet machine, and in congressman ross ' district, but also during this saturday's university of arkansas razorbacks football game against the third-ranked alabama crimson tide . university of arkansas football is darn close to a religion in arkansas , which is why we were able to tap a proud arkansas ex-pat at a new york city bar today in order to borrow this very, very attractive razorback hat. fire dog lake is trying to raise enough money to run that, hey mike ross support the public option ad, during this weekend's razorback's game and the game is is being played in alabama, which means most arkansas fans will be watching it on the tv. sweet. what's going on here is that the left is flexing its muscles, and as a result it has been a pretty rotten few days for democrats in congress who oppose the public option and other elements of real health reform . but conversely, that also means that democrats who support those things are finding their voices again.

    >> i'm a firm believer in the public option, because i think it's vital we have greater competition.

    >> i'm a strong supporter of a strong public option.

    >> the bill does not hold insurance companies accountable. the bill does not force insurance companies to compete for our business. real reform, colleagues, is saying you can keep what you have, but it is also saying if you don't like what you have, you can get something better.

    >> joining us now is that man that you just saw there, democratic senator ron wyden of oregon. he sits on the senate finance committee , which today began the arduous task of marking up the baucus health reform plan and debating about 564 amendments. senator wyden, thanks very much for taking the time to be with us on this busy day.

    >> thanks for having me back.

    >> you described real choice, real reform as being able to choose something else if you don't like what you have now. that's the idea behind your free choice act amendment, which is getting a lot of attention. can you explain to us how that would work?

    >> you've summed it up, rachel , and it sits pretty darn well with the public option. look, all over america people are carrying these signs, public option, public option or bust. they're wonderful activists but a lot of folks haven't been told that the congressional budget office says only about 12 million people in america would actually get to choose the public option. they are likely to be sicker. they're likely to be folks who haven't had good preventive health care services, to really put the consumer in the driver's seat, to give the consumer clout, to turn the tables on the insurance lobby, you've got to have a really big group. that's what i'm pushing for, and free choice is very compatible with the public option.

    >> so the idea is that anybody should be able to get into the health exchange? it shouldn't be that if you already have insurance through your employer, that locks you out of the health exchange? that anybody can be able to join, that creates competition, so that not only do we have a choice for people to get insured who can't afford insurance today but people can also hopefully improve on the insurance they have through competition and that sort of an exchange, is that the overall idea?

    >> it will send a message on day one to the insurance lobby that if you abuse somebody, if you abuse one of your consumers, you rip them off, give them lousy treatment, jack up the rates, they are going to turn the tables on you. they are going to choose another product. and i think it is so important for folks to understand this is about taking on the insurance lobby with choice rather than tethering somebody to something they don't want, something they don't like with choice. you liberate the consumer. you put them in the driver's seat rather than an insurance ceo.

    >> the afl-cio today sent a letter to finance committee members against your amendment. they're saying that it would encourage younger, healthier workers to -- to leave, leaving behind in the employer-based health plans older, sicker workers, and that would make those plans too expensive to maintain. what's your reaction to their criticism?

    >> they are just flat-out wrong, and in fact the congressional budget office put out an analysis today indicating that the afl-cio is wrong. they do not really understand what the proposal is. the congressional budget does. that our idea would not destabilize the employer system. i also think that the typical union member would be pretty shocked to know that their leadership here in washington, d.c. is lobbying for a public option that would deny more than 200 million americans the opportunity to get it. that's not in line with the public interest . i want everybody to have real choice. i think our free choice proposal worked very well with the public option. and, by the way, we got some very good news today, rachel , because the mayo clinic says that they would support a public option as long as it gave people choices like members of congress get, and i've got legislation to do that, too.

    >> in terms of thinking about what's ultimately going to happen and how this is going to work for most americans, when you guys are having these negotiations, particularly among democrats, is there an awareness that if the end result of this bill is that coverage stays as lousy and expensive as it is today, the democrats have changed the law so we're all forced to buy that lousy and expensive coverage, that this would be a huge political disaster? i'm worried politically that, that's going to happen and sink the democratic party for generations but i'm also worried that's going to be what happens to me personally in terms of my health insurance .

    >> rachel , you're being logical and sometimes logic doesn't break into these political debates. but that's the point that i'm making. i have been saying, folks, choice and competition are magical words in america . they're magical words for progressives, but they resonate all across the country. here is our chance to link real choice, real consumer choice with the public option and tell people, if you're getting hammered today, if you're stuck with a product you don't like, we're going to liberate you. we're going to put you in charge and, you bet, if the congress passes somehow an anti-consumer, anti-choice, anti-holding insurance companies accountable bill, i think we'll pay dearly for it.

    >> and i think the other thing we have learned tonight is right now there is a riff between some democratic senators on the senate finance committee and organized labor . and unless that rift closes, it will be hard to make political progress here, so i think that's going to be one of the major topics in the days ahead. senator ron wyden of oregon, good luck with the markup this week and i know it continues tonight. thank you so much for taking the time.

    >> thank you for having me.

    >>> at the value voter summit

updated 9/23/2009 6:43:03 PM ET 2009-09-23T22:43:03

A watchdog group asked the Justice Department on Wednesday to look into the 2007 sale of a drugstore owned by a congressman who is a key figure in the national health care debate after reports he may have profited excessively from the sale.

The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington questioned in a complaint whether the $420,000 that USA Drug paid Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., for his family-owned Holly's Health Mart in Prescott was a fair price. The deal was first reported this week by the Web site ProPublica.

Documents show that, after the sale, the Nevada County assessor valued the property at $263,700. An appraiser hired by ProPublica valued it recently at $198,000.

Ross on Wednesday called the complaint a "bogus ... political stunt" and has said there was nothing improper about the sale. He said the $420,000 transaction reflected a 4 percent annual return on a $316,000 investment he made in 1998.

USA Drug owner Stephen L. LaFrance also paid Ross and Ross' wife, Holly, between $500,000 and $1 million for the pharmacy's assets and that Ms. Ross was also paid to not compete with the new owners.

'Gotcha politics'
Campaign finance reports show LaFrance also gave Ross a $2,300 campaign donation two weeks after the sale and another $500 last November.

Image: Congressman Meet With Obama To Discuss Healthcare At The White House
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images file
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., says there was nothing improper about the 2007 sale of a drugstore he owned.
USA Drug referred calls to president and CEO Joe Courtright, who did not return a telephone call left with his voice-mail system.

Ross is the chairman of the health care task force for the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, whose support is critical for health care reform. Pharmacies have an interest in how the health care debate turns out because of its potential impact on drug prices.

In a statement, Ross accused ProPublica of engaging in "gotcha politics."

"Outside groups are trying to taint a completely legal and respected small business that my wife and I worked hard for 14 years to establish," Ross said. "The buyer did not just buy brick and mortar; he bought a successful, trusted, centrally-located and profitable pharmacy in my hometown," Ross said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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