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Dr. Quentin Young, Longtime Obama Confidante and Physician to MLK, Criticizes Admin’s Rejection of Single-Payer Healthcare

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While the Obama administration claims “all options are on the table” for healthcare reform, it’s already rejected the solution favored by most Americans, including doctors: single-payer universal healthcare. We speak with Dr. Quentin Young, perhaps the most well-known single-payer advocate in America. He was the Rev. Martin Luther King’s doctor when he lived in Chicago and a longtime friend and ally of Barack Obama. But he was noticeably not invited to Obama’s White House healthcare summit last week. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Montana Democrat Max Baucus, has also plainly said single payer is off the table. I want to play a clip of what he had to say at an event recently. He was asked why single payer was not being considered as an option.

    UNIDENTIFIED: I know that in the Helena Independent Record, you were quoted as saying that single-payer healthcare is off the table. I’d like to know your reasons for putting single-payer healthcare off the table and intending instead to a mandatory insurance payment — or, I’m sorry, purchase by Americans, which is an inefficient way of guaranteeing healthcare to everyone.

    SEN. MAX BAUCUS: Well, I just have to make a judgment. And I think at this time in this country, single payer is not going to get even to first base in the Congress. I just — and we’re also — we’re a big — we’re a big country. It’s — you know, we’re a battleship. We’re an ocean liner. We’re not a PT boat. We’re not a speedboat. It takes time to turn those big, big ships. You just can’t just turn them overnight. And we are — United States of America, we’re a different country. We’re constituted differently than European countries, than Canada and other countries. We’re a younger country, where there’s more of an entrepreneurial sense in America than in those other countries. It’s kind of “go west, young man” in, you know, America and so forth.

    So we’ve got to come up with our uniquely American result. An uniquely American result will be a combination of public and private insurance, but one in which everyone is covered. And just my judgment — and every member of Congress agrees with me, I think, at least those I’ve spoken with, that this is not the time to push for single payer. It may come down — it may come later. But it’s not going to happen in America, in my view. So I’m not going to waste my time pushing on something that isn’t going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus, seen as the most important figure on Capitol Hill around the issue of healthcare right now, the most powerful force with Senator Kennedy being ill.

Dr. Quentin is with us now from Chicago, national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program. He was Reverend Martin Luther King’s doctor when King was organizing in Chicago. He was a close ally of Barack Obama in Chicago. He wasn’t invited to the White House healthcare summit last week, but he is going to Washington tomorrow. Dr. Quentin Young, your response to Senator Baucus? And welcome.

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Well, greetings, Amy.

He was naming the ways in which our country is supposedly different from other countries. He neglected one huge one: the millions of dollars that people like him receive from these huge vested interests in the health industry and how somehow that influences their certitude that America is not ready for decent healthcare guaranteed by the national government. It’s really a major tragedy, because time has run out, if even without the economic downturn, which is a very polite way to describe our present plight, we would have to have this reform; but with it, we will not economically, let alone medically, survive.

And it’s painful to have people in high places, like Senator Baucus, deny the democratic method of debating the pros and cons even of these various proposals. It is pitiful. And we have to, as has already been pointed out, get the American people outraged at this taking away of the right to decent healthcare in this richest, still richest, of all countries. So I have no pity for Senator Baucus’s position. It’s wrong, and we’re going to have to overcome it.

AMY GOODMAN: First, I want to congratulate you, Dr. Young. This past weekend, hundreds of people turned out for a big celebration. You’re eighty-five now. You had the Illinois governor, the new Illinois governor, there. You had three Congress members celebrating your life.


AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been a longtime friend of Barack Obama.


AMY GOODMAN: How has he changed over the years?

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Well, Barack Obama, as we know, was a community organizer, a very lofty calling, in my book, and he made the decision, when the opportunity came, that he could get more done politically, and he accepted the nomination for the seat in the State Senate. It’s not that long ago, really. It’s about a six, eight years ago.

Barack Obama, in those early days — influenced, I hope, by me and others — categorically said single payer was the best way, and he would inaugurate it if he could get the support, meaning majorities in both houses, which he’s got, and the presidency, which he’s got. And he said that on more than one occasion, and it represented the very high-grade intelligence we all know Barack has.

However, as his political fortunes went upward, including the campaign for presidency, the nomination and, finally, the election, he qualified his position from saying it’s the best system, but that given the past American history with employment-based healthcare, he would have a plan that — and he has put one forward — that encompasses other incremental approaches.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play what President Obama himself said about single payer and how his position appears to have changed. This is what he said back in June of 2003, before he was elected even to the US Senate.

    STATE SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I happen to be a proponent of single-payer universal healthcare coverage. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent — 14 percent — of its gross national product on healthcare, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. And that’s what Jim’s talking about when he says everybody in, nobody out: a single-payer healthcare plan, universal healthcare plan.

AMY GOODMAN: That was State Senator Obama. This is Senator Obama. He’s speaking more recently, when he was on the presidential campaign trail.

    UNIDENTIFIED: …on what you were just addressing.


    UNIDENTIFIED: And why not single payer? Why not get the corporate —-


    UNIDENTIFIED: —- battling and the lobbyists out of the way —-


    UNIDENTIFIED: —- and just go to a single payer?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I’ve said this before. If I were designing a system from scratch, then I’d probably set up a single-payer system. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terminology, single payer basically means that you’ve got one government-funded program. It doesn’t have to all be government-run, but it’s government-funded. Everybody — Medicare would be an example of a single-payer system, if everybody was in Medicare.

    But the problem is we’re not starting from scratch. We’ve got a system in which most people have become accustomed to getting their health insurance through their employer. And for us to immediately transition from that, and given that a lot of people work for insurance companies, a lot of people work for HMOs — you’ve got a whole system of institutions that have been set up — making that transition in a rapid way, I think, would be very difficult. And people don’t have time to wait. They need relief now.

    So, my attitude is, let’s build off the system that we’ve got. Let’s make it more efficient. We may be, over time, as we make the system more efficient and everybody is covered, decide that there are other ways for us to provide care more effectively.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator Obama on the presidential campaign trail. Dr. Quentin Young, what’s wrong with that?

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Well, it’s one of the few times when Barack has been dishonest. He knows and all America knows that our experience with employment-based insurance and these other Mickey Mouse things have been increasingly a total disaster. You have a $2.5 trillion industry with vested interests — the private hospitals that are for profit, the HMOs, the health insurance industry — making billions upon billions, and things getting worse. He knows and should act on the fact that time is running out.

The American people are hurting. Over a million Americans go bankrupt due to medical bills each year, and there’s a new study, incidentally, that will show that 50 percent of the bankruptcies are due to health costs; it will be 60 percent. So we have a worsening situation. And a man who wants to lead a country which is in great peril had best do some courageous things.

I really feel that we have to mount a national concern about this. As a doctor, up until a year ago, after sixty years of practice, I can testify that this system is — well, “broken” is a gross understatement. It’s wrecked. And it’s ruining people, and the public can’t put up with it anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Quentin Young, explain. Over and over, you hear Senator Baucus, you hear President Obama, saying it’s not that they’re against this — at least Obama certainly was saying this — it’s that it’s impractical, and people won’t support it. What is the polling — what are the polling figures on single payer? We almost never see it discussed on television, unless an opponent brings it up.

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Well, let me say, we have single payer in this country. It was enacted in 1965. It’s called Medicare. And it was put through the Congress by Lyndon Johnson. And then, overnight — overnight, in one year, the system was put in place, and it’s probably the best insurance program in the whole country. The seniors of this country are highly dependent on Medicare. It’s kept them from penury, and that’s — it was done in one year, Amy. No drag-out, no problems. All the things that people worried about just didn’t happen.

Now we’re talking about — somewhat more complicated, but not much — giving single payer to everybody in the country. It’s its simplicity that’s its virtue. It entails one source of payment. Doctors don’t have to wait, as they do so often presently. There’s no hassles. There’s people who will be unemployed; let’s concede, the vast army of people that are dedicated to denying care in the present insurance system will be no longer needed.

And we — our bill, House bill 676, sponsored, first of all, by Congressman Conyers, but with ninety-two supporters in the last Congress — we’re up to sixty in this. It’s extremely popular. This bill will, once enacted, will take a year at the most to fully implement, and then the huge burden of fear of getting sick, which is the plight of almost all America — it’s not a poor person’s problem any longer; it’s middle-class America. And it has to be changed. I wish somehow Barack could see this as the thing that will give dignity and grace to his tenure at the very beginning. It’s very important that this be enacted.

AMY GOODMAN: It seems that the single most important word that people are using is “choice,” that people want choice.

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Yes. Indeed, they do. And indeed, they’re entitled to it. That choice is all but disappeared under the burden of private insurance schemes, which gives you limited panels. An employer, which has been vaunted minutes ago by President Obama — these employers change plans, and then you have to get brand new doctors. Continuity is lost. It’s a zoo.

The choice, under single payer, is total. The only limiting factor is the number of people a doctor may see. And that apart, your card is good for any program you approach, and it’s —- choice is total. And it really is the only way to go.

Let me mention something that’s important enough to be underlined. Under the weight of this private insurance system, doctors have finished training with huge debts, $150,000 on average, and the specialties, as it’s worked out under a private system, are paying on average two to three times what primary care doctors get. Primary care is very simple. It’s family practitioners, pediatricians and general internists. You need about 60 percent of your doctors in that category to have a balanced system. Well, that’s been slipping away, and now we’re well under 50 percent of primary care doctors. And that has to be reversed, or no system will work. And increasingly, there’s large areas in this country where people cannot find a primary care doctor. And in almost every, certainly metropolitan area, there’s an excess of specialists. That has to be done with -—

AMY GOODMAN: You say now, Dr. Young, that although the AMA during Roosevelt’s time prevented national health insurance from being passed, that the majority of doctors in America today are for single payer?

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Yes, and I’m saying that emphatically, Amy. A study, April 2008, a refereed study published in the very prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine had the very — for me, very happy return that 59 percent of America’s doctors now support a government-run national health insurance to pay for healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Dr. Young, because we just have a minute —-


AMY GOODMAN: This brouhaha over the last week with the White House healthcare summit, 120 people, there were going to be no single-payer advocates. Congressman Conyers asked to go. At first, he was told no. He directly asked President Obama at a Congressional Black Caucus hearing. He asked to bring you and Marcia Angell -—


AMY GOODMAN: — former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. You weren’t allowed to go. Do you have President Obama’s ear anymore? You have been an ally of his for years, for decades.

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Well, it’s mixed. I think we’re friends, certainly. At this gala that you mentioned, which was embarrassing, he did send a very complimentary letter. And I appreciate that, but I’d much rather have him enact single payer, to tell the truth. And we did — it’s fair to say, after a good deal of protest, I think we were told there was a — phones rang off the hook. They did allow our national president, Dr. Oliver Fein, to attend with Dr. Conyers — Congressman Conyers. That’s fine, but we need many more people representative of the American people at large to get this thing through the Congress, and Baucus, notwithstanding, be overruled.

AMY GOODMAN: There, tomorrow, you’re headed to Congress. You’re going to be meeting with a Senate group on this issue?

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: I am, indeed. I was invited. And there, let’s be candid. They don’t want a lot of single payer presence, but they can’t keep it out. Trade unions across the country, by the hundreds, have endorsed it. There are lay groups. By that, I mean non-professional groups. Nurses, the California Nurses/National Nurses Organizing Committee, are for it. It’s a very formidable list, Amy, of popularity. The American people understand it, and they want it, and we have to make it happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Quentin Young, I want to thank you for being with us, Physicians for a National Health — your group is called?


AMY GOODMAN: Physicians for a National Health Program, pnhp.org. Russell Mokhiber, I want to thank him, Corporate Crime Reporter, his group, singlepayeraction.org. And Geri Jenkins, with the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, nnoc.net. We’ll link to all of those sites. These are the voices that are not being heard in the media, and we’ll see how much they get heard on Capitol Hill.

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