Taking back the health care debate

August 27, 2009

It’s time to get angry about the fact that an opportunity for health care reform is slipping through our grasp, writes Nancy Welch.

THE MORNING after the November election, I visited my father in a Cleveland rehab hospital. Weak from surgery to reinforce his disintegrating spine, he was nevertheless grinning as I walked in. "We're going to get national health care," he said.

My father was not a radical, not even a lifelong liberal. But having suffered through a layoff in the mid-1970s, he later watched with helpless frustration as his children struggled with multiple layoffs, a home foreclosure, loss of health insurance and mounting debt.

What I should say, then, is that my father was not born a radical, but if supporting a national health program is a radical position, he--like millions of others--had become one by the time he died, 101 days into Obama's presidency.

My father didn't live to see the resurrection of the lunatic far right, nor the sad confusion--"Keep government out of my Medicare!"--that results when we debate health care just once every 20 years, and without any mobilization to counter the misinformation that the intractable opponents of reform are bound to spread.

The need to fight for single-payer health care has never been more urgent
The need to fight for single-payer health care has never been more urgent

My father would also never learn that well before the corporate deployment of angry mobs to derail the August town hall meetings, President Obama had promised the pharmaceutical industry not to seek lower drug prices for "public option" beneficiaries nor allow the re-importation of cheaper drugs from Canada. If he had lived, my father might have concluded that Obama, like the Clintons in 1992, had been routed by an industry lobby whose power is too great, an American "your-health-your-problem" individualism too deeply entrenched.

But before any of us exchange "Yes, we can" for "No, we can't," consider:

-- With rising unemployment swelling the ranks of the uninsured toward 50 million, with medical costs the leading cause of personal bankruptcy even for people with insurance, and with thousands lining up in a single day in one Los Angeles suburb for the free care offered at a M.A.S.H.-style clinic, the desperate need is plain.

With all credible studies demonstrating that public insurance provides better care to more people at less cost than our government is already spending on health care, and with Medicare's 44-year track record, an affordable--and popular--solution to this crisis is at hand.

With clear Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and a national economic meltdown that forced even Alan Greenspan to admit his free-market faith was mistaken, Obama should have been well poised to advocate not merely for limited reform of private insurance accompanied by a public option, but for a government-administered, taxpayer-funded national health insurance program--single-payer or "Medicare for All."

With 556 union organizations in 49 states endorsing Congress's Medicare for All bill (introduced by John Conyers in the House and Bernie Sanders in the Senate), joined with the grassroots army of Obama volunteers whose aspirations for change soared beyond getting their candidate elected, the means to launch a mass popular campaign for single-payer was--and still is--at hand.

IF 2009 seems like déja vu, it's because Obama took a page from the Clintons' sorry playbook. Like Hillary Clinton, who in 1992 told Physicians for a National Health Program's David Himmelstein that she had no interest in polls showing 70 percent of Americans favoring national health insurance, Obama and the congressional Democrats barred single-payer from consideration, going so far as to arrest 13 doctors and nurses in May who sought a place for single-payer at the Senate's "public roundtables."

Like Bill Clinton, who struck a deal with the "Jackson Hole" insurance-industry insiders not six weeks into his presidency, Obama asked corporate insurers to help Congress draft the various bills.

Yet even a bill that would expand the private insurance market by requiring people to purchase high-deductible policies and that would hand corporate insurers public dollars to peddle skimpy polices to the young and poor doesn't satisfy industry lobbyists and the "Blue Dog" Democrats tucked in their pockets.

Meanwhile, in the vacuum created by Democratic Party leaders when they shut out single-payer advocates lest they frighten the big business "stakeholders," the Republican far right has staged a comeback.

Where we should have seen thousands demonstrating for the services urgently needed in an economic crisis, we have hundreds holding signs that aren't only ridiculous, but vilely racist and, especially when accompanied by firearms, frightening. My father was shaken by the rabble who turned out for Klan-like Palin rallies across Ohio last summer. He would have been stunned to witness their return from November's defeat.

I suspect, however, that my father would also have been--like his favorite commentators--righteously angry. Consider Rachel Maddow castigating Obama for his "collapse of political ambition," and Bill Maher calling for a progressive party to "represent the millions of Americans who aren't being served by the Democrats." What a welcome change from 1992 when most commentators blamed a supposedly government-phobic American public for the demise of a national health plan Clinton never sought.

Maher's call for a party of the people is reminiscent of the mid-1930s, when burgeoning support for a labor party spurred a reluctant Roosevelt into delivering much of the New Deal. Even more welcome are signs of stirring among activists on the ground, from the boycott against Whole Foods, whose CEO opined against health care reform in the Wall Street Journal, to Vermont's Health Care Is a Human Right campaign, whose carpools carried hundreds--many carrying "Single-Payer Now!" signs--to August's town-hall meetings.

An Oregon group called "Mad as Hell Doctors" plans a September cross-country caravan to demand "Health Care for People--Not Profit!" Imagine them joined by "Mad as Hell Nurses," by "Mad as Hell Patients"--and also by "Mad as Hell Women" demanding, with "Medicare for All," the repeal of the Hyde Amendment so we finally have full reproductive health care rights.

My father may not have been a radical, but he understood radical action might be needed for winning health care, reversing the Bush tax cuts, stopping the wars. In November, he said, "See what he does. Then you can say, 'To the barricades.'" I think he'd agree: The time is now.

First published in Vermont Woman.

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