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As Senate Panel Debates Public Option, Groups Take Direct Action to Promote Single Payer

StorySeptember 29, 2009
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As debate continues over healthcare reform on Capitol Hill, we hear from two groups taking action to call for a single-payer system: Mad As Hell Doctors, who have been driving across the country in the lead-up to a rally tomorrow in Washington, DC, and Mobilization for Health Care for All, which is launching “Patients Not Profit” sit-ins at insurance company offices nationwide. [includes rush transcript]

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

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: As the Senate Finance Committee debates the healthcare bill today, Democratic Senators John Rockefeller of West Virginia and Charles Schumer of New York are expected to include an amendment on the public option in the bill.

Well, we turn now to two groups that say that’s not enough. They’re calling for a single-payer plan.

The Mad As Hell Doctors are a group of Oregon-based doctors who have traveled across the country all month to push for real healthcare reform. They’re rallying in Washington, DC on Wednesday. Dr. Paul Hochfeld joins us from Cleveland, Ohio. He’s an emergency room physician at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis, Oregon.

We’re also joined here in the firehouse studio by Kevin Zeese. He’s the executive director of the Prosperity Agenda. He’s helping to launch a national campaign of “Patients Not Profit” sit-ins at insurance company offices. There’s a sit-in and a rally in front of Aetna headquarters today in New York.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

KEVIN ZEESE: Thank you.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Kevin, let’s start with you. What exactly are you launching today, this campaign of civil disobedience?

KEVIN ZEESE: Well, it’s three groups that are launching it., which is trying to democratize the economy in the way that Michael Moore is starting to get a debate going about, we see healthcare as critical to people getting control over their lives. And a single-payer system is the only way to do it. Healthcare-NOW!, which is the leading grassroots advocacy group for single payer that is joining us. And the Center for the Working Poor in Los Angeles works on issues of low-wage workers.

And the basic thrust of this is, is to highlight the denial of healthcare by the insurance industry. Doctors and patients reach an agreement on what they want, what kind of healthcare is appropriate, and too often healthcare insurance companies say, “No, we’re not going to pay for that.” In fact, there was a report put out by one of the really excellent organizations in this effort, California Nurses Association, that showed that 20 percent of the time when people have agreed on healthcare, the insurance companies say no. Twenty percent of the time. One company was 40 percent of the time. So this is a serious problem. In fact, Michael Moore, when he did Sicko, had 25,000 people write him and say that they were being denied healthcare. So the goal is to say, “Get these people healthcare.”

We’re going to go — and if people who are denied healthcare want to have the community support them, they should contact us at, and we will bring people together to go to the insurance company and say to the insurance company, “Provide this person with healthcare.” These are life and death decisions, and their profits should not be coming before patients.

But the overlying message of this is that the healthcare — health insurance industry should not be seen as a solution to our healthcare crisis. They are the cancer of the healthcare crisis. We need a single-payer system. And the band-aid, putting over the cancer, that President Obama and the Democrats are pursuing in Washington is not going to make the situation better. In fact, it’s going to make it worse, because they’re going to empower these insurance companies with hundreds of billions of dollars in annual new revenue by having working people, who can’t even afford to put food on the table in too many kinds, forced to buy private insurance that’s overpriced and a pretty lousy product. It’s amazing that we’re seeing the government forcing people to buy insurance, when the insurance industry is the cause of so much of the problems that we’re facing here.

So, people who want to get involved in this, we’re looking for people to sign up to protest,, and come there and sign up, whether you’re a patient, whether you’re — want to get involved in this. We’ve had hundreds of people sign up already, and we want hundreds and hundreds more, because this is going to be a national campaign.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So you’re calling for people to stage sit-ins at the offices of private insurers?

KEVIN ZEESE: Well, the first thing we want people to do is to go to the insurance and make a demand: stop the denials. If they refuse a demand, we say we’re staying until you make that — make that promise, and that we’ll stay — I mean, sit-in, and stay until that demand is met. If it’s not met, we stay. We’re not seeking to get arrested, but if that’s what happens, then the insurance companies have to choose: are you going to arrest people for your profits, or are you going to provide healthcare, like you’re supposed to be doing?

How can they say with a straight face, while we’re about to give them hundreds of billions of dollars in tax revenue and working people’s income, how can they say with a straight face they’re going to deny healthcare? It’s going to demonstrate that these corporations are not the solution.

Single payer is the solution. And so, please, get involved, Get involved, get active. We need the people to rise up and say, no, we don’t want this forced insurance company solution that the Obama administration and the Democrats are pushing down the people’s throats.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re talking to Kevin Zeese. He’s the executive director of the Prosperity Agenda, joining us in the firehouse studio. We’re also joined from Cleveland by Dr. Paul Hochfeld. He’s with the Mad As Hell Doctors. He’s been driving across the country with a group of doctors from Oregon.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. Hochfeld. Explain why Mad As Hell Doctors?

DR. PAUL HOCHFELD: Well, a group of Oregon doctors are really dismayed and disgusted by the healthcare reform debate that’s not happening in Washington. And what we’re mad about is that our legislators are partnering, really partnering, with the industry to manipulate public policy so it’s more about profits than health.

We have a completely dysfunctional healthcare system, that to the — non-system. To the extent that it’s designed, it’s designed to service the insurance industry and the drug industry. And we waste 20 percent of all of our healthcare dollars on insurance activity, manipulating money, and fighting over money, and it doesn’t add anything to the product. The insurance companies don’t add anything to health. They complicate the lives of providers. They waste 20 percent of all of the money.

And we’re never going to be able to afford true universal access in this country, which is a moral imperative, until we get rid of the insurance companies. That’s the first step. It’s the first necessary step. After that, then maybe we can have a system. Then maybe we can have a healthcare administration that every decision that’s made is motivated by how do we get the most health we can for the precious money we’re spending on healthcare.

And our legislators understand this. Unfortunately, they think they need industry money to get reelected more than we think we need a healthcare system that delivers health. We don’t have a healthcare system; we’ve got a “sick care” system. The way you make money in this system is you treat sick people. There’s very little money to be made keeping healthy people healthy or keeping people with chronic diseases from stumbling into the ranks of the ill. And that’s going to continue, until we put our healthcare system in the hands of public health people. Now, there’s a concept.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But this issue of single payer, Kevin Zeese, do you think that there is a chance of it happening on Capitol Hill? Right now there’s a debate over whether to even have a public option. You’ve been involved in politics for a long time. You were Nader’s spokesperson in 2004 in his much vilified campaign for president. Do you think — the efficacy of what you’re doing right now?

KEVIN ZEESE: I think that single payer is inevitable; it’s going to happen. The question is when.

What’s being put on the table right now in the Congress by the leadership is really not going to solve the problem. It’s not going to cover everybody. It’s not going to control costs. It’s not going to give people the choice of doctors and health providers that they deserve. It’s not giving people security to change jobs and keep their healthcare. So all the problems that currently exist will be there. It’s a band-aid over a cancer and not a solution to the problem.

So what we need to see to make this — to win this battle — and it’s a critical battle for really economic security and democratizing our economy — what’s needed is people to get organized and get active. And so, this effort,, is an effort to really get people active and involved, so we can make this change.

I really think it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen. It may not happen this year, but whatever happens this year is not going to solve the problem. And I really hope that President Obama would go back to the President Obama of 2003, who favored single payer and who said we had to win the House back, had to win the Senate back, had to win the presidency back, then we’d get single payer. If we had that president as our leader…

There’s so many opportunities right now to make single payer a reality. In fact, there will be a floor vote on HR 676. Anthony Weiner, the Democrat from New York, is going to ensure that there’s a vote on the floor for HR 676, the single-payer bill. So that’ll be the first time ever we’ve had that. We started this debate, we were off the table. In fact, I was one of the Baucus Eight who was arrested challenging Senator Baucus for keeping single payer off the table. And now we’ve gone from off the table to on the floor. There will be a floor vote. So we’ve made a lot of progress.

My preference would be to see this bill defeated. It does more harm than good. It empowers these corrupt corporations in ways that we don’t need. So let’s see this bill defeated and start over and make the next election about a national healthcare plan. That’s what the people really want. And if Obama had used this year to educate the public on single payer — he did a little bit of it once in awhile when questions were asked at town hall meetings. And he admitted it’s not socialist, it’s the only way to cover everybody, it’s the only way to really control costs. He acknowledged all that. But then he goes ahead with this failed system of private insurance that denies care to make profit.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And also, Congress member Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has passed a measure that allows states to adopt a single-payer plan, which is a similar — in the process that Canada actually eventually got a national system. But Dr. Hochfeld, you’re holding a rally tomorrow, your group. You’re driving to Washington, DC. Are any lawmakers supporting your efforts?

DR. PAUL HOCHFELD: Well, Dennis Kucinich is completely supportive. We spent about forty minutes on a video feed with him yesterday. And he’s going to be holding a press conference on Thursday morning, in which he’s going to introduce us. We are holding a rally tomorrow at Lafayette Park from 4:00 to 6:00.

I would agree with all of the comments that were just made. I think that nothing that’s being proposed right now is going to fix this problem. And as near as I can tell, we’re just getting Medicare Part D revisited. This is a government giveaway to the insurance industry, with or without the public plan option.

This public plan option, at least as it’s written in HR 3200, is a lame, failed, designed-to-fail public plan option. It’s not available until 2013. When it’s available, it’s not available to people who get insurance from their employers. Those are healthy people. It’s not available to people who are upper middle class or wealthier. Those are healthy people. So the public plan option is designed to attract the sickest, most expensive people. And when it fails in 2017 or 2018, by design, the insurance industry is going to point at it and say, “See, the government can’t do healthcare.” And it’ll be the wrong lesson. And I just — this whole thing is being manipulated by the industry with our legislators being complicit in this process.

And it’s going to take civil disobedience. I’m totally supportive of what’s being proposed with these insurance companies. And this is the next civil rights issue of our time. It is the civil rights issue of our time. If we assume that healthcare is a right, which it is, then we need to design a healthcare system in which we get the most health we can for our public and private healthcare dollars. And that’s only going to be able to be accomplished with single payer.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Dr. Paul Hochfeld, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Dr. Hochfeld is with Mad As Hell Doctors. He’s a physician with the Good Samaritan Hospital in Oregon. He will be holding a rally with the group tomorrow in Washington, DC. And thank you very much, Kevin Zeese, the executive director of the Prosperity Agenda. We’ll link to your websites on

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