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2009-11-09

House Passes Landmark Healthcare Bill with Amendment Backed by Anti-Abortion Lawmakers

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The bill has been described as the biggest overhaul of the country’s healthcare system since the Medicare and Medicaid Act of 1965. Among those who voted no was Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, a leading proponent of a single-payer, Medicare-for-all healthcare system. Reproductive rights took a hit Saturday night when the House also passed an amendment to establish limits on the funding of abortions within the new framework that would be established by the Affordable Health Care for America Act. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The House of Representatives voted late Saturday night in favor of the Affordable Health Care for America Act, a bill that would expand healthcare coverage and bar insurance practices such as refusing to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions. On Sunday, President Obama called the 220-to-215 vote courageous and historic and urged the Senate to follow suit.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Given the heated and often misleading rhetoric surrounding this legislation, I know that this was a courageous vote for many members of Congress, and I’m grateful to them and for the rest of their colleagues for taking us this far.

AMY GOODMAN: The bill has been described as the biggest overhaul of the country’s healthcare system since the Medicare and Medicaid Act of 1965. House Democrats burst into applause as the crucial 218th vote was cast in favor of the bill. Two hundred nineteen Democrats and one Republican, Louisiana’s Joseph Cao, voted for the bill. The no votes included thirty-nine Democrats and 176 Republicans. Among those who voted no was Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, a leading proponent of a single-payer, Medicare-for-all healthcare system.

Reproductive rights took a hit Saturday night when the House also passed an amendment to establish limits on the funding of abortions within the new framework that would be established by the Affordable Health Care for America Act. Speaking at a news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she allowed the amendment to go to a vote as a way to seek, quote, “common ground.”

    SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: We have sought, in the course of the development of this bill, common ground in many areas, this being one of those. We did not reach the common ground yet that we hope to achieve; therefore, we had an amendment on the floor. We will continue to seek common ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite opposition from pro-choice Democrats, the amendment, which was initially proposed by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, was approved by sixty-four Democrats and all 176 Republicans.

Well, to assess what happened in the House and how the healthcare bill will move forward in the Senate, I’m joined now by two guests. Congress member Dennis Kucinich joins us from Cleveland, Ohio. He voted against both the Affordable Health Care for America Act and the Stupak amendment. We’re also joined in Washington, DC by the founder of the popular blog Firedoglake, Jane Hamsher.

And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Before we go to the congressman, Jane Hamsher, just lay out exactly what this bill, that passed by a squeaker, 220-to-215, what exactly it mandates, if in fact it joins with the Senate and then it’s reconciled?

JANE HAMSHER: Well, we would get a bill that has a public option that would cover not a lot of people in it. But it would get rid of people being excluded for pre-existing conditions. It has a community rating, and it also has a provision that grants an endless monopoly on biologic drugs, sort of the drugs of the future, that mean that they will never come into generic form and will cost, in perpetuity, you know, fifty to eighty to a hundred thousand dollars a year and only be able to be available to people who can afford them.

It also has a provision barring any insurance company or a public option who offers insurance on the exchange from providing abortion services, which means that you would have to go to a private insurance company that wasn’t on the exchange in order to get a policy that covered it, effectively keeping poor people from being able to afford those policies. So it is a huge victory for Bart Stupak and the anti-abortion Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people now would be covered, would get healthcare, that don’t normally have it?

JANE HAMSHER: I believe that it’s going to cover approximately 95 percent of Americans, but that is with a mandate, and that assumes that people comply with the terms and do purchase insurance. But the mechanism for enforcement is still questionable as to whether that will work or not.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the politics of the House, how exactly it passed 220-to-215. Who was for? Who was against?

JANE HAMSHER: Well, in the House, you had Democrats in the Progressive Caucus who were trying to decide whether they should take a stand at the last minute after Bart Stupak and the pro-choice — the pro-life Democrats decided to hold up the bill unless they got their amendment through. They wound up being supported by sixty-four members — sixty-four Democrats in order to pass it. And the Progressive Caucus decided that they were not going to take a stand at this point.

At this morning, we have Diana DeGette saying that she has forty votes in the Congress to be able to stop the bill from going through if it comes back from conference and has the anti-choice stipulations in it. But she hasn’t been joined by any of the pro-choice groups, NARAL and Planned Parenthood, who sort of laid around since July 1st, I believe, when Stupak first wrote his letter, and didn’t do anything about this. So, whether they’ll actually have the political will to carry through on this or not is questionable.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go now to Cleveland to the home district of Congress member Dennis Kucinich. Congress member Kucinich, you voted no on the healthcare bill, one of the 215. Why?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Because it’s not the best we can do. It mandates people purchase private insurance. It is a $70 billion giveaway to private insurance companies and locks in this system that’s the problem, not the solution.

And so, I made every effort, right from the beginning, as you know, as a single-payer advocate. We couldn’t really make this bill single payer; that was taken off the table. But we did something else: We were able to get a bill in the committee passed that would protect the right of states to be able to have — to pursue a not-for-profit healthcare plan at a state level to shield it from legal attack. And that was taken out of the legislation after it had passed. It was taken out by the administration, which has whittled down the public option to the point of not having it truly compete with insurance companies.

So what you have here is people continuing to be at the mercy of the insurance companies, except in this case the government is going to subsidize the policies. People are still going to have premiums, co-pays and deductibles to deal with. And, you know, there’s really a great deal of question here as to what in the world we’re doing in creating a healthcare system that’s really based on the premises of private insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s better than what we have now?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: No. Actually, it’s not, because it locks us into a for-profit system that the government subsidizes. It’s not going to save money in the long run. It’s not going to provide the kind of broad healthcare services the American people need. It’s going to limit the choices that people have over a longer period of time. And people will have to buy private insurance. I mean, what’s going on in this country? We’re told that the only choice we have is to buy private insurance, and with the robust public option being gone, it makes sure that there’s little competition with the insurance companies. This bill doesn’t effectively moderate what they can charge for premiums or co-pays or deductibles. It just says people have to have insurance. Well, insurance doesn’t necessarily equate to care, and care comes at a cost.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you compare the public option in the House bill with the Senate bill?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, that remains to be seen. I mean, Senator Baucus has had a couple different iterations. His first bill didn’t have a public option at all.

Keep something in mind. When Mr. Hacker first came out with his proposal for a public option, it was going to cover 129 million Americans. That really would compete in an exchange with private insurance. But that’s been whittled down to, depending on who you talk to, covering six to 11 million people. So only a fraction of Americans will have access to the public option, which means that there’s not effective competition with the insurance companies to drive down rates.

And the Senate, we’ll see what happens in the Senate.

But as far as the House bill that I was confronted with, Amy, I just felt that it increased privatization of the healthcare system. Requiring the purchase of private insurance, the government subsidizing it, it ends up being a redistribution of the wealth of this nation upwards, which lately seems to be the sole purpose of the government.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip about what we could expect from the Senate. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina declared on CBS’s Face the Nation that the bill would be, quote, "dead on arrival" in the Senate.

    SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The House bill is dead on arrival in the Senate. Just look at how it passed. It passed 220-to-215. It passed by two votes. You had forty Dem — thirty-nine Democrats vote against the bill. They come from red states, moderate Democrats from swing districts. They bailed out on this bill. It was a bill written by liberals for liberals. And people like Joe Lieberman are not going to get anywhere near the House bill. It cuts Medicare about $500 billion. It’s over a trillion dollars in new spending. It does have the public option. So the House bill is a nonstarter in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Kucinich, your response?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you know, making this about liberal and conservative is a phony argument, to begin with. I mean, when I heard the Republicans attacking this bill in the House as a government-run healthcare system, I said, “I wish.” I wish that it would have been a not-for-profit, single-payer, universal system. Nothing like that.

The fact that there’s a shrinking public option is not a credit to the bill. And the administration, obviously, was terrified that anything could be identified as being adverse to the insurance companies, which is why they took privatization, they took single payer off the table immediately, they knocked down the robust public option. And after an amendment that would have protected the right of states to pursue a single-payer system was passed by the Education and Labor Committee, the administration weighed in heavily and influenced the leaders of Congress to take it out of the bill.

I mean, American people are being locked into a for-profit insurance structure. And we have to ask ourselves, why is this the best that we can do? Why should we settle for this without fighting back? Why shouldn’t we insist that a robust public option is the only way to make sure that the American people really have a fighting chance with the insurance companies? As it is now, the government is going to be subsidizing the insurance companies.

And we’re being told all the time, Amy, that our options keep getting limited. We were told last year the only way people could get unemployment benefits is if Congress votes for war, the only way we can pass a hate crime is if Congress votes for war, the only way we can get housing is to give Wall Street a bailout. And that didn’t put people back in — most people back in their homes who lost them. You know, we’re going to get jobs by giving Wall Street a bailout; that didn’t work. Businesses are going to be helped by giving Wall Street a bailout; that didn’t work.

Our whole economy is being organized in a way that takes the wealth of the nation and sends it right to the top. And this healthcare bill is no different. And we’ve got to fight back, and that’s why I could not vote for this. If we were able to get a single payer — to protect the right of states to have a single-payer plan, maybe the bill would have been worth voting for. But that was taken out. So what are we left with? Private, for-profit health insurance, with the government subsidizing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see, Congressman Kucinich, a way to get from where you’re talking about from here?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Yes, if we are able to get back in the bill a provision that says states will be shielded from legal attack by insurance companies if those states go with their own single-payer plan. I mean, states should have the right to do that. You have ten states which are actively involved in single-payer movements. And I fought to get that amendment in the bill to make sure that states would not be subject to the kind of legal attacks that are building by the insurance companies against efforts at local, county and state levels to have their own single-payer system, so they’re not strapped by the rising cost of insurance companies, their administrative costs, their profits, their stock options.

You know, we’re stuck with a model here. And we’re putting this model in place and keeping it there. That’s what this bill does. So the only way that I think we can get out of it — at least have the hope to — is to be able to have a path towards single payer at the state level. But the administration has been blocking this. And frankly, if I give my vote to that, what I’m essentially doing is putting a nail in the coffin of the single-payer movement. And I’m not going to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the Weiner amendment? And what was the Kucinich amendment? And what happened to both?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, my amendment passed in the Education and Labor Committee, and it would have protected the right of states to pursue single payer by granting states a waiver from what is known as the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, which is currently being used in court by the insurance company to attack single-payer initiatives. My amendment passed the committee. It was taken out of the bill at the behest of the administration.

Mr. Weiner had a stand-alone bill that was a single-payer plan. I didn’t see the plan, but it was single payer, I’m told. And at the last minute, he decided to withdraw it, you know, for his own reasons, which I think had to do with wanting to support the larger bill. But the truth of the matter is that a single-payer bill in this climate, with all of the effort being made to shore up the interests of the insurance companies, would have been a tough ride.

I mean, we need a national campaign. You know, we’re years away from being able to pass a single-payer bill. The question is, what can we do in the meantime? There’s no question Congress could pass a stand-alone bill that would address the issue of pre-existing conditions. You know, we shouldn’t be held hostage on that issue to say, well, you just got to buy, you know, private insurance for the rest of your life. There are many things we can do to fix the system to make it more accessible to people until we get to the point of a single-payer system.

I’m not saying it’s — you know, that it’s my way or the highway, by any means, but we have to make sure that we protect the right of states to pursue single payer, which is what’s happening right now, Amy. But they’re going to be vulnerable to legal attacks if we don’t have states given the opportunity in the bill to get a waiver from the ERISA pre-emption, which, in effect, is the vehicle that insurance companies are using to attack state single payer.

So, you know — and the other thing is, with state single payer, that’s the real threat, not the public option anymore, because it’s so small. The state single-payer initiative is the real threat that the insurance companies have, because if they’re worried about action at a state level that would attack their profits, they’re going to be very careful about continuing aggressive pricing of their premiums, which, by the way, for the last four years, have had double-digit increases. So, you know, inevitably it’s an economic issue, as well as a social issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain —-

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: And I think -—

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Kucinich, explain the Stupak amendment that seemed to come up at the very last minute.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I wish it hadn’t come up. I mean, it effectively removes any kind of insurance support and any federal subsidy for abortion. Now, I voted against the Stupak amendment. I think that we should do everything we can to make abortions less necessary, and I think the way to do that is through prenatal care, post-natal care, childcare, universal healthcare, a living wage. This is a very complex social issue. And I respect the right of people to make their own choices here.

But the Stupak amendment, I think, set us into a ferocious public battle over the abortion issue at exactly the time that we should be conciliating over the issue. We’re looking at another fight here. I don’t know how it contributed to the healthcare debate, but I voted against it. And I’m hopeful that, as Speaker Pelosi said, as they go to conference, there will be a way to achieve common ground. But I’m also hopeful that, as they go to conference, there will be a way to achieve protection for state single-payer initiatives.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jane Hamsher, you’ve written a piece at Huffington Post that says, “Call Bart Stupak’s Donor PACS and Tell Them They’re Paying for His Anti-Abortion Activism.” What are you calling for here?

JANE HAMSHER: Well, one thing I’d like to correct in something Congressman Kucinich said is that the Stupak amendment does not end abortion subsidies, because that was already prohibited by the Hyde Amendment.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Right.

JANE HAMSHER: This ends any company on the exchange from being able to provide abortion in the insurance package that it offers to women who are paying for it. That is something more extreme.

But, yes, I think that people should be calling Congressman Stupak’s donors and playing hardball. And to that end, I’d like to ask Congressman Kucinich — the reason that Congressman Stupak was able to do this was because the Republicans were voting in a bloc against it, against the legislation, and there were problems, which means that any thirty-nine Democrats can stop something. And there were probably twenty-five Democrats who will vote against anything. So, given the fact that there were eighty-three co-sponsors of 676, I believe, was there any attempt to get fourteen of them together to block any legislation from going through that didn’t have a vote on single payer or your state legislation?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: This thing, as it — the answer is no. And, you know, we’ve — you know, there were many Democrats who felt that they had to pass something. And so, those of us who took a strong stand on robust public option, and when it was whittled away, many voted for the bill. Those of us who took a strong stand on single payer, and when that was —- my amendment was taken out of the bill, they still ended up voting for the bill. I mean, people have to make their own choices here. And, you know -—

JANE HAMSHER: Right, but I would make the point that there is a real problem that we’re going to try and address in the single-payer infrastructure. If — for instance, when Congressman Rangel said that he would not become a supporter and people who had co-sponsored the bill said that they would not vote it on the floor, and there was no price exacted it. It’s eighty-three —-

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: And there was no what?

JANE HAMSHER: There was no price exacted for abandoning it. If it was the NRA or AIPAC, they would be yanking their chains very hard, and that didn’t happen.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Your point is well taken.

JANE HAMSHER: I want to know why eighty-three co-sponsors -— among those eighty-three co-sponsors, there were not, you know, fourteen that could be found to join you in demanding that this actually got a vote on the floor.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Yeah, you know, I got your point. I mean, unfortunately, there were many people who just didn’t want to fight that. They saw the administration had abandoned the state single-payer issue, and they didn’t feel there was any support for it. I mean, there’s this chemistry that happens, and people look around, and there’s only a few people really taking a stand on something, they may not desire to join.

So, you know, in the end, you know, I voted against a bill that, as someone who’s championing the cause of healthcare for all, who took it into two presidential campaigns, who addressed three platform committee meetings of the Democratic Party and said we have a single-payer plan, only to have the committee reject it, seeing the influence of private insurers in this Congress, I felt that my vote was the only way that I could make a statement about how this is not a state of affairs which is celebrating Democratic principles, Democratic economic philosophy, or the hopes of people to have real healthcare instead of having real health — instead of being forced to pay for insurance. So, I wish there would have been more people who would have stood with me. I think, as we go to conference, maybe that might change, but who knows?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you, Congress member Dennis Kucinich, speaking to us from his home district in Cleveland. He voted no on the healthcare bill that just passed the House. Jane Hamsher, founder of Firedoglake, speaking to us from Washington, DC.

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