WisBusiness: Feingold, Ryan outline economic, health care strategies before biotech group

PEWAUKEE — Two national leaders with common roots in Janesville but divergent political views today delivered the keynote addresses to the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Biotechnology & Medical Device Association.

Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold and Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan provided the more than 300 conference attendees with sometimes widely varying views of the current economic and financial crisis, and how the federal government must help the country emerge from it.

Feingold said the country was tiring of political talk associated with the presidential campaign. A “nuts and bolts” discussion about how to ensure economic growth was needed to “build on the economic development momentum we’ve generated in Wisconsin,” Feingold said.

Feingold told the audience of biotechnology and medical device industry executives, scientists and service providers that his recently announced “E4” economic development plan would provide the kind of support the industry needed to continue to innovate and grow. He said the plan would increase support for small businesses through expansions of the SBIR and STTR grant programs, a series of initiatives to help those businesses find qualified workers and funding to foster the development of energy-related “green collar” jobs.

“Wisconsin has the potential for tremendous new growth,” Feingold said. But only through coordinated economic development efforts, he said, would “we create opportunities, even in these tough times.”

Both leaders took audience questions at the conclusion of their remarks. Feingold was asked about the prospects for “meaningful health care reform.” He said real reform was possible if the Democrats have the election night “we think we’re going to have,” but added that “we won’t get anywhere if we don’t engage the minority party.” The senator said he has joined with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to introduce the State-Based Health Reform Act. The legislation would allow states to foster solutions to improve health care coverage within their borders and to measure the success of those improvements during a five-year period.

Ryan, the most senior Republican member of the House Budget Committee, said the country is at “a critical crossroads” and that entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, if left unreformed, would consume 40 cents of every dollar sent to Washington, more than double today’s amount, by the time his young children are his age. Ryan outlined his economic development plan, “The Road Map for America,” which he told conference attendees would ensure the fulfillment of the health care and retirement security missions of current entitlement programs, pay off the federal debt and make America more competitive.

With the number of U.S. retirees set to double from 40 million to 80 million as the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age, the time is now for health care reform, Ryan said. He said the goal of health care reform must be universal access to coverage, while ensuring that neither “health care or government bureaucrats” are put in charge of the system. Doctors and their patients, he said, should be arbiters of the system.

Ryan said he opposed a single-payer health care system because it didn’t offer choice or competition and didn’t permit consumers to “fire their provider or insurer.” The health care system accounts for 16 percent of our economy, he said, and we should not have “government take over another 16 percent of our economy.” Ryan backs the creation of an organization like the Financial Accounting Standards Board, or FASB, which would create and publish health care price and quality performance data to drive consumer choice.

In answer to an audience question, Ryan said the recently enacted financial bailout package, which he played a key role in renegotiating with the Bush administration and others in Congress, was necessary to avoid “a real crash.” The last thing the federal government should do in the current economic and financial crisis is raise taxes, he said.

See more on the conference: http://wisconsinbiotech.org/