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Obama Urges Lawmakers to Pass Healthcare Bill, But What Will Reform Really Look like?

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President Obama intensified his push for healthcare reform Wednesday with a nationally televised address before a joint session of Congress. Obama urged lawmakers to overcome partisan differences and pass long-awaited changes to the nation’s healthcare system. But what would reform actually look like? We speak with Dr. Quentin Young, a longtime friend of Obama and the national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program, as well as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: With us from Chicago, Dr. Quentin Young, the national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program. Dr. Young, longtime friend of Barack Obama, former doctor for Dr. Martin Luther King when he lived in Chicago. And here in our firehouse studio is a fellow Chicagoan, but he’s here in New York, Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a patient of Dr. Young.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: For a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s start with you, Reverend Jackson. Your response to President Obama’s rare address before a joint session of Congress?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, there were some major steps in the right direction. Everybody [inaudible] as Dr. Young says, the idea of insuring, without the pre-existing condition, a bigger tent, include the poor in ways they’ve not been included, dispelling some of the myths about death panels, those are steps in the right direction.

The public option is essential. It’s really a compromise from single payer, the public option, but how else can you control these monopolies, unless people have an alternative? It’s like, as Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. says, if you have FedEx and UPS delivering good service, if you don’t have internet and the post office, there’s no way to control the cost of mail. And to that extent, if you have these insurance companies running amok without the government public option for those — see, the insurance companies do not want to insure the poor in the first place, so they’ve been rationing treatment for the poor. If you have [inaudible], we can’t insure you.

And I also like the idea of insurance between jobs, for example, particularly given that we’ve lost, you know, eight-and-a-half million jobs the last eighteen months, given the fact that we have four-and-a-half million homes in foreclosure and rising. And so, insuring those people who are losing homes and jobs is a big piece of this package.

And so, I think it’s going to be a ground war now. The struggle for protecting the public option for not being a negotiable bait will be an on-the-ground war, and the progressives must lead and draw that line in the sand.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Do you think that President Obama, by waiting until now, until September, to actually begin to shape his vision, versus what was being debated in the House and the Senate, has actually lost valuable time?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: I don’t think so. There are two arguments. One, he has now heard the people. Now he’s making his case, and maybe his dash in the last lap of this race is the right time. Great runners kind of make that dash for the last round of a four-round race. We have time, on the ground, city by city, this Sunday, church by church and temple by temple, and rallies and marches. We must now make this a ground war, because it’s really hard to argue rationally against making more — making healthcare more accessible and more affordable. And, of course, the public option simply provides more access, and it’s more affordable. And there is stiff resistance. He campaigned a lot against lobbyists. Well, lobbyists are having a field day right now, and he must diffuse their power.

I think it’s also fair to say that there’s a mean, violent spirit in the air. What Congressman Wilson did last night was just a part of “the President is un-American. He’s socialist. He cannot inspire our children to go to school,” bringing guns to rallies. There is a sickness, a meanness in the air that must also be a factor as we —- as the right wing struggles with a kind of unrelenting meanness, we must get beyond them, but we must act now to fight for the public option and do not allow anyone to be dismissive of single payer, because it does have great value.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Dr. Quentin Young in Chicago, national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program, your response to the President’s speech?

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: He gets an A-plus for diagnosis. He gets a D-minus for treatment. As he said himself, this public option, which is the line in the sand, is a false dichotomy. Perhaps five percent of the potential users would be in it. That leaves 95 percent out. It has already been emphasized, the problem with the American health system is crystal clear: it’s the private insurance companies. And if the Obama proposal is as I heard it, actually enhances the insurance presence, all these 45 million uninsured will be held up, with the government and other kinds of subsidies, to go into the private insurance market and all that that implies, with denial of care, pre-existing disease exclusions. We know the terrible pitfall we’re in now. And the answer continues to be clear-cut, like Medicare is: single payer for all.

And the good news is that there’s going to be a chance for the Congress to express itself in the House. Speaker Pelosi has assured Anthony Weiner, a Republic—- pardon me, a Democrat from Brooklyn, that his motion to substitute single payer for the administration’s bill will come to a vote. And this period, that Reverend Jackson just identified, of public expression is precisely the time to let our Congress people know we don’t want them to be bought and sold by the insurance lobby, we want them to vote for single payer, so we can join the rest of the world of democratic industrial countries and have healthcare for all the people and end this nightmare of denial and bankruptcy and suffering. That’s the issue, as far as I see it.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Young, President Obama mentioned the proposal to create a single-payer system only once during his speech. He dismissed it as a possible way to reform the healthcare system.

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Well, that’s why I give him a D-minus. This, you know —-

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s take a listen to what Obama said first, and then we’ll get your comment.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada’s, where we would -— where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everybody. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end employer-based systems and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

    I’ve said — I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both these approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the healthcare most people currently have. Since healthcare represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Quentin Young?

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: It’s a fallacious argument. We have Medicare, which is a highly prized benefit to seniors and people who are disabled. It was installed in one year without any problem at all, and it’s the most popular insurance program in the nation. And it has to be said, three or four years ago, Obama himself, on the record, said single payer is the best solution. He did qualify it by saying, if he were starting from scratch, he would go with single payer. Well, we’re worse than scratch, we’re minus-scratch. And the American people can’t tolerate, our economy can’t tolerate, the excesses going on now.

He’s essentially proposing to put some 45 million people in play for the private insurance companies, and we’ve had fifty years’ experience with them. They’ve had their chance. And I find really discouraging his point that it would be disruptive to change the system to a single-payer arrangement. I think that that doesn’t jibe with anything we know about healthcare finance. And time is running out. I think our economy — he said this —- can’t tolerate the excessive costs imposed by the private insurance schemes.

And finally, he came out for mandates, which he opposed during his election campaign. Mandates, in plain talk, is a nice word for compulsory insurance. People will be required, unless they’re very poor, to fork up the money to get insurance. The 45 million people -—

AMY GOODMAN: Like you need insurance for cars.

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Yes. The 45 million without insurance aren’t that way because they like it; they don’t have the money. And we have the money in place. This has to be said, Amy. The American system spends twice as much per capita as any other system. The money is there. The work force is there. The hospitals are there. The only thing missing is that we have a private insurance scheme that’s maddening.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: You know, I can also say that the —-

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Jackson.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: —- equation of single payer for all, versus the extreme of everybody fight on his own, is not a solid equation. We are moving in that direction. He has advocated single payer, because he saw the wisdom in it. He advocates public option. He sees the wisdom in the public option versus monopoly. And that’s why, given his struggle with the right, the issue there is not the political center, it’s the moral center. The moral center is everybody in, nobody out, affordable and accessible. And that’s why we who supported the President must have an on-the-ground war now. We must have our own hearings and church rallies and marches, in fact, fighting for somewhere between single payer and public option. And to take public option off the table is to let the insurance companies be subsidized and really run amok.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dr. Young, what about the issue that the — some Republicans raise, that with a public option, many employers, especially small employers, would remove the health insurance they now have, get rid of it, and basically push their employees into a publicly run portion of the system and be willing to pay a fee or tax to the government just to be done with having to provide health insurance? Your response to that?

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Well, they may be right. It’s another way of saying how rotten the private insurance system is. I think that — I’m not a fan of public option. I recognize its symbolic place, that it’s being the line in the sand, as they say, and therefore it’s going to mean a lot if it gets thrown out. And I painfully note that Obama has shifted away from public option, saying he’s for it, but he’s looking for other alternatives. That’s a very bad way to conduct a struggle of this magnitude. If you tried these kinds of models on, say, civil rights or slavery, you’d come up very sad, if you compromise all the way. No, I don’t see the Republican observation that people would pick the public option as anything other than saying how bad private insurance is.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this, Reverend Jackson, why President Obama, the administration, immediately — I mean, Nancy Pelosi said single payer is off the table. Just in terms of strategizing, wouldn’t it have made sense to always have it there as an option and say, “We’re making a concession: we’re looking at a public option; we won’t go that route of single payer”? But by taking it off the table from the very beginning, John Conyers had to fight to introduce single payer every year, had to fight even to be included in the original healthcare summit at the White House of 120 people. He had to fight to be one of those people.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, we can’t keep making concessions to Afghanistan, concessions to bankers on the bailout, where the banks get bailed out and homeowners get kicked out. We must draw some line in order to preserve the integrity of the movement for openness. And our basic thrust is, we must still fight over everybody in, nobody out. And if you leave the device of insurance companies without checks and balances — that’s what happened to the whole housing collapse. There was no checks and balances. And public option at least preserves a measure of checks and balances. And without it, then this is a lot of sound and fury, but it does not signify the progress that we deserve and he has advocated down through the years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Dr. Young, I’d also like to ask you about the cost of President Obama’s proposal. He basically said that it would cost no additional moneys to the American people, that it would basically be financed by reductions of cost and new taxes on insurance companies, especially those who offer gold-plated insurance policies to others, taxing those. Your sense of the economics of the proposal?

DR. QUENTIN YOUNG: Well, that’s our strongest point, of course. The President said more than that. He said if it exceeds the budget, he will reduce benefits. He made that pledge. Well, that’s not necessary with single payer. If we enacted single payer in this Congress, within a year we’d have $400 billion of the excess administrative costs, the 32 to 33 percent of administrative costs, and of course huge salaries to the executives, and of course the huge amount of money spent in advertising, which helps nobody’s health. So, the benefits from single payer are never more clear than when you talk about the economics. And the President knows this, and that’s why I’m so uncomfortable when he talks about it being disruptive to go to a system that would rescue the healthcare of the American people.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: And with this also is a kind of Trojan horse, because within this horse, they’re not just arguing about healthcare. People that have Medicaid and Medicare caught in their pocket are arguing against expanded healthcare. Those who are arguing for discipline among children are, when the President says — speaks, he’s a socialist. So there is within this Trojan horse a lot of other issues that’s been under the rubric of healthcare, a rubric of education. And that’s why I’m convinced the President has to stake out a territory for change and stay in that lane.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Jackson, why do you think that President Obama wasn’t accused of socialism in bailing out the banks of this country?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Because of those lobbyists who are controlling the debate. I’ll remind you, President Roosevelt speaks of Social Security, dismissed as socialist, and now everybody enjoys it. When President Johnson spoke for voting rights for all, it was considered un-American, and Republicans went — Democrats became Republicans in the South. So those were there — be change agents. As Dr. King would often say, leaders of strength must not follow opinion polls; they must mold opinion. As he said in his profound closing statement, “We must not fear the future; we must shape it.” This is future-shaping time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what do you think progressive Americans and others who want to see a more substantive change, in terms of health insurance for the nation, need to do now?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, there’s a combination. On the one hand, fight as the minimum for the public option to have a real genuine competition. But don’t leave out of the equation, we still have lost eight-and-a-half million jobs in the last eighteen months. Now, about 30 million people, able to work, but can’t, do not have a job. Four-and-a-half million homes a month — a year in foreclosure. And what you have, the foreclosure, are — they’re essentially modifications. $120 billion in student loan debt. So, in that bracket is healthcare, student loan rates — the clunkers are zero percent interest; students, eight to 20 percent. We’re getting a better deal for clunkers than for college rates. And so, I put in the same bracket the need for a comprehensive healthcare plan, stop the hemorrhaging of jobs and homes, and make education affordable and healthcare affordable. You really cannot separate those, in my judgment.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader, founder of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Plan.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: My doctor, my doctor.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll ask you his secrets after the broadcast, Dr. Quentin Young, also the doctor of Dr. Martin Luther King.

As we turn now to how President Obama ended his speech, talking about the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s hope for Congress to finally pass healthcare reform.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it the most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true.

    That is why we cannot fail, because there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed, the ones who suffer silently and the ones who share their stories with us at town halls, in emails and in letters.

    I received one of those letters a few days ago. It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy. He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal. He asked that it be delivered upon his death.

    In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife Vicki, his amazing children, who are all here tonight. And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that healthcare reform, that great unfinished business of our society, he called it, would finally pass.

    He repeated the truth that healthcare is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that it concerns more than material things. What we face, he wrote, is above all a moral issue. At stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country. […]

    Ted Kennedy’s passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick. And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, “There is something that could make you better, but I just can’t afford it.”

    That large-heartedness, that concern and regard for the plight of others, is not a partisan feeling. It’s not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character — our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama concluding his rare address to the joint session of Congress on healthcare.

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