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Wednesday, March 11, 2009 Previous | Next

"Put Single-Payer on the Table"

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President Barack Obama promises health-care reform, but he has taken single-payer health care off the table. Single-payer is the system that removes private insurance companies from the picture; the government pays all the bills, but health-care delivery remains private. People still get their choice of what doctor to go to and what hospital to use. Single-payer reduces the administrative costs and removes the profit that insurance companies add to health-care delivery. Single-payer solutions, however, get almost no space in the debate.

A study just released by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog group, found that in the week before Obama’s health-care summit, of the hundreds of stories that appeared in major newspapers and on the networks, “only five included the views of advocates of single-payer—none of which appeared on television.” Most opinion columns that mentioned single-payer were written by opponents. Congress is considering H.R. 676, “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All,” sponsored by John Conyers, D-Mich., with 64 co-sponsors. Yet even when Rep. Conyers directly asked Obama at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting if he could attend the White House health-care summit, he was not immediately invited. Nor was any other advocate for single-payer health care. Conyers had asked to bring Dr. Marcia Angell, the first woman editor in chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, the most prestigious medical journal in the country, and Dr. Quentin Young. Young is perhaps the most well-known single-payer advocate in America. He was Martin Luther King Jr.’s doctor when King lived in Chicago. “My 15-minute house calls would stretch into three hours,” he told me. But he came to know Barack Obama even better. Though his medical partner was Obama’s doctor, Young was his neighbor, friend and ally for decades. “Obama supported single-payer, gave speeches for it,” he said. This past weekend, hundreds turned out to honor the 85-year-old Young, including the Illinois governor and three members of Congress, but the White House’s response to Conyers’ request that Young be included in the summit? A resounding no. Perhaps because Obama personally knows how persuasive and committed Young is. After much outcry, Conyers was invited. Activist groups like Physicians for a National Health Program (pnhp.org) expressed outrage that no other single-payer advocate was to be among the 120 people at the summit. Finally, the White House relented and invited Dr. Oliver Fein, president of PNHP. Two people out of 120. Locked out of the debate, silenced by the media, single-payer advocates are taking action. Russell Mokhiber, who writes and edits the Corporate Crime Reporter, has decided that the time has come to directly confront the problem of our broken health-care system. He’s going to the national meeting of the American Health Insurance Plans and is joining others in burning their health-insurance bills outside in protest. Mokhiber told me, “The insurance companies have no place in the health care of American people. How are we going to beat these people? We have to start the direct confrontation.” Launching a new organization, Single Payer Action (singlepayeraction.org), Mokhiber and others promise to take the issue to the insurance industry executives, the lobbyists and the members of Congress directly, in Washington, D.C., and their home district offices. Critical mass is building behind a single-payer system. From Nobel Laureate in Economics Joseph Stiglitz, who told me, “I’ve reluctantly come to the view that it’s the only alternative,” to health-care providers themselves, who witness and endure the system’s failure firsthand. Geri Jenkins of the newly formed, 150,000-nurses-strong United American Nurses-National Nurses Organizing Committee (nnoc.net) said: “It is the only health-care-reform proposal that can work. ... We are currently pushing to have a genuine, honest policy debate, because we’ll win ... the health insurers will collapse under the weight of their own irrelevance.” Dr. Young has now been invited to a Senate meeting along with the “usual suspects”: health-insurance providers, Big Pharma and health-care-reform advocates. I asked Young what he thought of the refrain coming from the White House, as well as from the leading senator on the issue, Max Baucus, that “single-payer is off the table.” “It’s repulsive,” sighed Young. “We are very angry.” But not discouraged. I asked him what he thought about Burn Your Health Insurance Bill Day. “Things are heating up.” he chuckled. “When things are happening that you have nothing to do with, you know it’s a movement.”

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