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As Obama Continues Push for Healthcare Reform, House Committee Approves Kucinich-Sponsored Measure to Keep Single-Payer Option Alive

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On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders say they’re open to paring down a healthcare reform bill in order to sway “conservative” Democrats who’ve threatened to oppose the measure that would create a government-run public insurance option. We speak with progressive Democrat, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). A House committee recently approved his amendment that would allow individual states to adopt a single-payer system. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn to healthcare, on Capitol Hill Democratic leaders say they’re open to paring down a healthcare reform bill in order to sway “conservative” Democrats who’ve threatened to oppose the measure. On Monday, aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a proposed surtax on Americans earning over $350,000 a year could be changed to apply only to those making over a million dollars. Raising the income level would reduce the amount available to fund the Democratic pledge to expand coverage to 97 percent of Americans. The proposals to overcome the difference include reducing payments to medical providers under Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly and the disabled.

Democrats also face continued Republican opposition. On Monday, Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele announced a new public relations campaign against President Obama’s push for the creation of a government-run public insurance option. Speaking in Washington, Steele said Obama is conducting a “reckless experiment” with the US economy.

    MICHAEL STEELE: In America, we don’t allow one man to roll the dice with our entire nation. We do not allow one political leader to risk our healthcare system and our entire economy. We do not allow one political group to gamble with the fate of generations. We have never allowed one political party to experiment with the future of our country. That is, until now. It is time to hit the pause button on this administration’s reckless experiment with America’s economy and our healthcare system.

AMY GOODMAN: Steele’s comments follow a similar attack from Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. On Friday, he told a conference call of right-wing activists that healthcare could become Obama’s “Waterloo.”

    SEN. JIM DeMINT: If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him, and we will show that we can, along with the American people, begin to push those freedom solutions that work in every area of our society.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Obama visited Washington, DC Children’s Hospital, where he dismissed Republican attacks.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a healthcare system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses and breaking America’s economy. And we can’t afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to healthcare — not this time, not now.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite the partisan differences, Democratic and Republican leaders have been united in opposing a single-payer approach, where the government would become the lone health insurer and guarantee coverage for all Americans. But a congressional committee has approved a measure that keeps the single-payer option alive. Last week, the House Education and Labor Committee approved an amendment to the health bill that would enable individual states to adopt a single-payer Medicare-for-all-style health plan. The amendment was proposed by Democratic Congress member Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who joins us now from Washington, DC.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressman Kucinich. What exactly did you get passed?


We passed an amendment that would permit states to be able to offer their own single-payer plan. This is the first time that such an amendment has been passed. It will strengthen the healthcare bill and give many people reason to support it, because states will have the opportunity and the option to create their own plan, as many states are trying to do right now, and a single-payer plan.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly how this would work. If it’s not being considered at the federal level, how do states do it?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, states do it by using the resources that come to states and creating resources within the states to make sure that people within their state have healthcare. California twice has passed a measure that would provide for a single-payer solution. The governor has vetoed it, but there’s strong public support in California, in New York, in Illinois, in New Mexico, in Ohio, and other states, Pennsylvania, for a single-payer plan.

It’s just that the people in the state would be covered for all their basic healthcare needs and that — and when it’s possible at a state level, people will see how it can work at a state level, it, I think, will become more acceptable on the national level, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly what you mean by the single-payer plan that, state by state, it could be adopted.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, Medicare is a single-payer plan. It’s the government pays the bills. Now, government doesn’t own all the hospitals under the legislation that I wrote with John Conyers, HR 676, that is co-sponsored by eighty-five members of Congress. Government would essentially be the person or the institution that pays the bills.

Right now, we have a system with 50 million people uninsured, another 50 million underinsured, where you have thousands of different insurance companies that are involved in jacking up administrative costs. One out of every three dollars goes for the activities of the for-profit system, for corporate profit, stock option, executive salary, advertising, marketing, and cost of paperwork. You eliminate that $800 billion a year in overhead, and you have enough money to be able to meet the needs of all people in this country. And when you eliminate the overhead at a state level, you can meet the needs of people of a state level.

My single-payer amendment will, for the first time, enable states to have the option to go to a single-payer plan, provided that we keep it in the bill. This is where your viewers come in. I really need support to have members of Congress contacted to say, keep that amendment in the bill, so that we can give states the option to pursue their own healthcare plan, if they don’t like what Congress is dishing up.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting, Canadian single payer didn’t begin nationally, but actually began in one province, equivalent of our state, in Saskatchewan. John Nichols points this out in thenation.com blog that he writes. The initial progress came with Tommy Douglas, who was the premier of Saskatchewan from ’41 to 1960, big pusher of single payer. He’s actually Kiefer Sutherland the actor’s grandfather. And he was responsible for this in Saskatchewan, which ultimately led to all of Canada, because Saskatchewan had such a successful health program.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I think that a state, any state, deserves the right to proceed, if that’s what they want to do. I mean, the whole idea of states having the ability to be great laboratories of experimentation was supported by none other than Justice Brandeis years ago. States can be the incubators of new directions for America. And I think that the single-payer amendment, which I put into the education and labor bill, gives states the opportunity to be able to take a new direction in single payer if they desire to do so, and hopefully we’ll be able to keep that amendment in the final bill. That’s where people all over the country need to be heard from.

And this actually could help save the healthcare legislation, Amy, because there are a lot of problems with this bill. It requires people to buy insurance. It will increase the profits of insurance companies. It leaves a lot of people out. It has many problems. But I think it would be worth supporting if we can keep a single-payer amendment in it, and — because that could then be, in a sense, a lifeboat for people in the future who will look to states to create a plan that would hopefully in the future be a model for the entire country.

AMY GOODMAN: All the lobbying money had to be reported by last night. And of the thousands of reports — and they haven’t all been analyzed yet — covering lobbying on all subjects, only three organizations reported spending more during the second quarter than PhRMA, the drug industry trade group: the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the US Chamber of Commerce, and General Electric. But we’re talking about massive influx of money — GlaxoSmithKline, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Novartis, Biotechnology Industry Organization, MetLife, and it goes on from there. What’s the effect of this on your colleagues, when you have the largest recipients of healthcare — health insurance money going to John Kerry, going — of Massachusetts, Max Baucus of Montana, in charge of Senate Finance, which is in charge of shaping the plan?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, it’s an aphorism in politics and in business that he who pays the piper calls the tune. One of the calamities of a —- of the current political financing system we have is that healthcare is held hostage.

I mean, think about it. You know, you hear Michael Steele talking about what they’re not going to tolerate. Well, how have we tolerated 50 million Americans being without health insurance? The insurance companies have almost a death grip on our political system. And they can have so much power that they can exclude 50 million people and trap another 50 million in confiscatory premiums, co-pays and deductibles, just jettison millions of Americans into bankruptcy. And yet, we still have this system. And people are saying, “Well, you know, we can’t have a government-run system.” Well, frankly, we tried this system controlled by private insurers, and it’s been a calamity for America.

One out of every three Americans is either uninsured or underinsured. And when you consider one out of every three dollars goes for the activities of the for-profit system, we clearly have to change the equation here. It’s almost like a form of slavery that our country’s been experiencing. When you consider how vitally linked healthcare is to economic security, the entire middle class is at risk here, if we continue to stay in a for-profit healthcare system. Healthcare must be viewed as a basic right in a democratic society, or we’re just going to be owned by the insurance companies, and our political system will be owned by the insurance companies. That’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what is happening right now, Congressman Kucinich? The latest, the possibility that the bill will not be passed by August, which some have taken to mean it’s going to give more time for Republicans and the Blue Dog Democrats to water it down. But they’re not even with the public plan. I’d like you to explain what is being offered, even coming close to the idea of single payer.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, it’s not close to the idea of single payer. It’s mandating that people buy insurance. And it’s telling insurance companies they have to sell insurance. Well, you know who wins in that deal.

The fact of the matter is, this debate is all skewed right now. You know, there are — both political parties are in trouble on the issue of healthcare. Our political system is failing the American people, and it’s a bipartisan affair. So, what we have right now is a mishmash, which is being offered up as reform. Well, no wonder it’s in trouble from all sides.

I mean, if people were offered a clear choice of a single-payer plan or not and told what the advantages are of having the government paying the bills, eliminating the overhead, enabling all Americans to have not just basic coverage with doctor of choice, but vision care, dental care, mental healthcare, prescription drugs, long-term care, all covered, if people knew that was the choice they could have, there wouldn’t even — there wouldn’t be much of a debate at all.

But we’re falling back on old ideological arguments, when the fact of the matter is the insurance companies are running Washington and we have to break their hold. And that’s why the single-payer amendment that I offer that gives states an option is a small step in the direction of trying to give states the ability to be able to determine their own destiny, and then hopefully America will be able to see in these laboratories of states that we can have a single-payer plan that can save people money and protect people’s economic security and their health. Healthcare is a basic right. We still don’t hear of that talked about in the major debate here in Washington about the bill that is being presented.

AMY GOODMAN: But do you think that a public plan, that’s being proposed, could lead ultimately to single payer? Because most people would opt for the public plan, which is the health insurance companies’ greatest nightmare, and ultimately would go in that other direction.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: I don’t know that, Amy. I mean, right now what I see is a public plan that gives the insurance companies the option to pick the people’s pockets. As long as you have a public plan, which now is going to be supported by what? Cuts in Medicaid, on the other hand? And undermining benefits to the elderly? Are you kidding me? I mean, this is — the balance that’s being constructed right now indicates an inherent flaw in the proposal, to begin with. Now, I will vote for it, if we can keep the single payer in, because I think it would be worth the price. But without the single-payer provision in it, I don’t know what’s in the bill that would really be worthy of supporting.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Kucinich, I want to switch gears for one last minute that we have with you. I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to you in the last month, after the House narrowly passed the $106 billion spending bill to expand the war in Afghanistan and continue funding of the war in Iraq. You were one of the Democrats who opposed. The Obama administration put heavy pressure on even antiwar Democrats to turn around, which many did, ultimately leading to the passage of the bill. Final vote: 226-to-202. What happened?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you know, the country has been lulled into an acceptance of war. And it’s tragic, because the war has been based on lies. And we’ve been lulled into it, because we’re in this fiction that somehow a new administration will take us in a new direction, and everything is going to be fine again. The only thing that’s going to be fine is if we get out of Afghanistan and get out of Iraq and stop Americans’ hegemony in the region and to take a new approach in the world, which is cooperative instead of trying to dominate other countries. We need to protect this country, for sure, but we sure aren’t doing it by the approach that we’ve used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: How has the — how did the politics play out there? How were antiwar Democrats pressured into voting for the funding?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: I don’t know. I can’t speak to that, because I wasn’t pressured.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Congressman Kucinich, for being with us, Democratic Congress member from Ohio. Last week, the House Education and Labor Committee approved his amendment to let individual states adopt a single-payer Medicare-type health plan, which has also gotten support from conservatives supporting states’ rights and states having the ability to determine what they do in their own states. This is Democracy Now! The question is whether that amendment will hold.

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