With the Democrat-led push for healthcare reform in its final stages, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) introduces "The Public Option Act," a measure that would allow people under sixty-five to buy into Medicare. The bill has attracted fifty co-sponsors. Grayson joins us to discuss the measure and healthcare reform overall, his own family’s experience with private insurance companies and more. [includes rush transcript]
ANJALI KAMAT: The Democrat-led push for healthcare reform is in its final stages as lawmakers prepare for a congressional vote as early as the weekend. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she has a, quote, “massive whip operation” trying to round up the 216 votes needed for passage. Pelosi is meeting with wavering lawmakers individually and in groups. Meanwhile, President Obama has summoned Congress members to the White House, one by one, for private face-to-face talks. On Monday, Pelosi suggested she might attempt to use a special legislative procedure to avoid a direct House vote in order to pass the less popular Senate version of the bill.
Within the Democratic Caucus, opponents of the healthcare bill range from right-leaning Democrats, who want to include harsh anti-abortion measures or who think it’s too expensive, as well progressive Democrats, who are insisting on a public option. But now a number of Democrats who have decided to vote for the bill have also signed onto the Public Option Act, a measure that would allow people under sixty-five to buy into Medicare. The bill, also known as the Medicare You Can Buy Into Act, was introduced on the House floor last week by Florida Congress member Alan Grayson.
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: So I’m asking the Speaker and the leadership, if we have to vote on this Senate bill, that doesn’t have a public option in it, if we have to vote on this reconciliation amendment, that doesn’t have a public option on it, isn’t it time that we finally did something good for America? Isn’t it time that we gave all Americans the right to buy into a public plan like this? Isn’t it, in fact, past time that we did something like that? And what’s the harm?
I say to those people on the other side of the aisle, if you don’t want to buy into the public option, that’s fine, but don’t prevent me and my family and the ones who I love from doing the same. Let us have our alternative. And remember, remember what you said so many times before. You say the government can’t do anything right. Well, let’s see. Let’s see right now. Let’s let people buy into the public option through this bill, HR 4789, and we’ll give it a shot. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Florida Congress member Alan Grayson speaking on the House floor last week. His bill has since attracted fifty co-sponsors.
Congress member Grayson joins us now from Washington, DC. He’s a freshman Congress member, and he’s no stranger to controversy. In October, he came under heavy criticism from Republicans after he said on the House floor that the Republicans’ healthcare plan involved wanting people to, quote, “die quickly.” He also established the website namesofthedead.com, honoring those who’ve lost their lives because they were uninsured. This past weekend, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin traveled to Grayson’s Florida district and urged voters at a Republican fundraiser to oust Grayson in November.
Well, Congress member Grayson, welcome to Democracy Now!, still speaking to us from the nation’s capital. Can you start off by explaining your bill that you’ve introduced, and then where you stand on, well, the whole healthcare reform bill that is being pushed through now?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: I’ve introduced a simple three-and-a-half-page bill that opens up Medicare to anybody who wants it. If you want it and you pay for it, it’s yours. It’s that simple. It’s open to everybody under the age of sixty-five, whether or not you’re handicapped. And you pay the same amount as other people your age would pay.
And the reason to do this is because we need a public option. We need an option that doesn’t involve putting us at the tender mercies of insurance companies, particularly if there’s a mandate to do so. A lot of people feel that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between themselves and private insurance companies. The private insurance companies make money by denying you the care that you need to be healthy, and sometimes to stay alive. And a lot of people are just sick of it.
So the way to get beyond that is to open up Medicare, which is now available to only one-eighth of the population, to anybody who’s willing to pay for it. And it makes perfect sense when you think about it. I mean, we don’t say the federal highways are only open to senior citizens. And the Medicare provider network is an enormously valuable, expensive thing that we’ve created with federal tax dollars that ought to be open to everyone, not just seniors.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does this fit into the major piece of legislation that will or — I don’t know would even pass — won’t be voted on by the House?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: My hope was that we would vote not only on the Senate bill, which doesn’t have a public option, not only on the reconciliation amendment, which probably will not have a public option, but that we’d also vote on this, that there’d be three votes instead of two votes. And if we voted on this and we passed it, then it would be presented to the Senate and subject to reconciliation in the Senate, so that we could end up with a public option.
AMY GOODMAN: Now?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Now.
AMY GOODMAN: Right, but now?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: And if not, then it’s something to build for in the future.
ANJALI KAMAT: And would you support the bill even if your bill doesn’t go through?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, if you’re talking about the Senate bill combined with the reconciliation fix, the answer is yes, because that’s a bill that saves lives and saves money. And I feel that to do that, to deny 30 million Americans the insurance that they would have under that bill, the Senate bill with the reconciliation fix, would be cutting your nose to spite my face. So I would be very reluctant to vote against a bill that will end up doing so much good for the Americans who don’t have insurance and also help to restrain the growth, the large growth, of premiums for those who do, and make insurance manageable for people and establish certain minimum standards. Those are all good things to do.
But I think it’s a better thing to do to combine all of those things with the public option. We’ve heard all year long from the Democratic leadership and from the President that we need a public option to provide competition to insurance companies where there is no competition. All over the country, including many places in Florida, we have markets where insurance companies have 80 percent of the market, if there’s only one or two of them. So it’s a monopoly or it’s an oligopoly for 80 percent of the market or more. And those insurance companies charge you whatever they want, and they give you whatever little care they can get away with. And that’s true all over the country. If Medicare was available to anybody who was willing to pay for it, then in a place where there was an insurance company monopoly there’d be two choices. In a place where there are two choices already, there’d be three choices. And that’s going to be a dramatic improvement
AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Grayson, talk about your own family’s experience with health insurance.
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, in the case of myself, I grew up a very sick child. I went to the hospital four times a week for treatment. I went there only because my parents were both union members who had union benefits. Twice, when I was seven years old and when I was seventeen years old, my parents went out on strike. They were worried about how to pay the rent. I was worried about whether I’d stay alive, whether I’d still be able to get the health benefits that I needed, the healthcare that I needed to stay alive. And that’s a hard, hard thing for a seven-year-old to be thinking about.
When my own children were born, we had private insurance. I have five children. When the first one was born, the insurance company told us, after the child was born, that there were no maternity benefits under the policy, and therefore we had to pay for the birth of the child. I thought I had insurance. I thought it covered it. And it turned out otherwise. So I had to spend $10,000 to cover those bills.
Now, you know, it could have been worse. Maybe I wouldn’t have had $10,000. A lot of people find themselves in that situation, medical bills they can’t pay for. About a million Americans find themselves in that situation every year, and they go broke. It could have been worse in a lot of ways. I had children later on, twins who were born prematurely. And I don’t even know what their medical bills were, but they were covered by insurance. They could have been hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t know. But I do know that when you’re sick or when someone you love is sick, you shouldn’t have to be worrying about how you’re going to pay the bill. That’s the last thing you need to be worrying about.
AMY GOODMAN: How, Congressman Grayson, did the House go from saying there would be no question, they would not support a bill without a public option, to where it is today? What went wrong?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: It’s a mystery to me. I thought we should have gone through reconciliation a year ago. I said it publicly. I never thought that you’d be able to get the cooperation of any of the Republicans. The Republicans have just decided that they’re against everything, and they somehow think that “no” is a policy. I don’t understand the psychology or the politics of that, but that was their decision a long time ago. It’s not as if they kept it a secret. So I knew that we’d get a better bill, and certainly a bill, if we assumed that we could need only fifty senators, with the Vice President voting in case of a tie, versus sixty. And we would have had a much better bill.
Now, why it is that we can’t take up my bill at this point, a simple three-and-a-half-page bill that simply allows people an alternative that they don’t have under present law, harms nobody, I don’t know. But I do know that in four days we attracted seventy sponsors for this bill. And I do know that at our website, wewantmedicare.com, we’ve attracted over 25,000 signatures on our petition, and the number grows all the time, every minute. So what we’re hoping is that this becomes a rallying cry for people who want better healthcare in this country.
ANJALI KAMAT: Congressman Grayson, talk about the website you set up, namesofthedead.com.
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, this is something that I did to put names with the statistics. The statistic is horrifying enough. According to a Harvard study, 44,789 Americans die every year because they have no health coverage. If you take two people in America who are physically identical — same age, same gender, same race, same smoking habits, same weight — and one of them has healthcare and the other one has no health coverage, the one with no health coverage is 40 percent more likely to die each year. And the result of that is 44,000 extra deaths each year for the lack of health coverage in America, according to this Harvard study, which confirmed earlier studies that came to the same conclusion.
I wanted to know about those people. So we established a website called namesofthedead.com, and people — we invited people to write in and tell the stories of the ones that they loved and they lost because they had no healthcare. And we had literally thousands of people write in and write the saddest stories you can ever imagine. I’m talking about fathers of children who decided they couldn’t get care because they didn’t have insurance, and they knew that if they did get the treatment for their cancer or whatever else was ailing them, their family would go broke, they would die anyway, and their family would be out on the streets. So these people consciously decided not to get the care they needed to stay alive, because they didn’t want to see their family broke, and they didn’t want to see their children, at the same time, without a parent. So they were accepting their own death on account of that. We saw parents talking about children they lost, children talking about parents they lost.
I invite people to come and contribute more stories, but more importantly, just look and see what’s there. You know, people, ordinary people, have enormous eloquence. I read some of those stories on the floor of the House, and it was a far, far more poignant presentation about this problem than anything that I could have said myself. And I still do that from time to time, because this is America. What we’re trying to do is to hold a mirror up to America to show America the cruelty that some people suffer in the current healthcare system and make us wake up and fix it.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re facing a very tough battle in November in Florida in your district. Sarah Palin just went to your district. She’s urging voters to oust you. Are you sorry you said that the Republicans’ healthcare plan was to — what, to want people to die quickly?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: “Don’t get sick.” No, I said the Republican healthcare plan was “Don’t get sick. And if you do get sick, then die quickly.” And I said that because they have no plan. That’s been evident. It’s evident right now. Where is the Republican plan? What is the Republican plan? When you hear about what the Republicans say about healthcare insurance, it’s not actually a plan to provide insurance to the 40 million-plus Americans who don’t have it. It’s not a plan to cut back on the fact that premiums are increasing in California by 39 percent in one year. What their plan is, basically, if you can call it that, is whatever the insurance companies want. The insurance companies want tort reform, so the Republicans want tort reform. The insurance companies want interstate licensing, so the Republicans want interstate licensing. If the insurance companies wanted a pony, the Republicans would try to get them a pony. But the fact remains that that’s not going to solve people’s problems. That’s not going to save lives. That’s not going to save money. And that’s the purpose of what I said.
I do have a difficult race. We have established a website, congressmanwithguts.com. We’re having a money bomb this month on March 27th. The last time we had a money bomb, on November 3rd, it was very successful. We raised a lot of money. We’re hoping to do the same thing again. We’re announcing it today. That’s how we fight back against the Sarah Palins, who said she wanted to take me out, like she was trying to shoot a moose from a helicopter or something like that. She wanted to take me out. Well, we’ll see what happens. But I do know that people understand that the way to solve our problems is to do something about them and not do the things that Palins of the world want us to do, which is to do nothing about them.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Grayson, we’d like to ask you to stay on. We just have to break for a minute. We’re speaking with Congressman Alan Grayson. He has a tough battle in Florida for his seat in November. And he has introduced a bill into Congress, so he is supporting the bill that is going to be, or not going to be, voted on around healthcare reform, a Medicare-for-all bill. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Florida Congress member Alan Grayson. He has introduced a Medicare-for-all bill, though he is supporting the current legislation around healthcare in Congress, though he wishes it were different. But I want to ask you another question, Congressman Grayson, and it’s about ACORN, the federal judge reaffirming her earlier ruling blocking the congressional effort to defund the anti-poverty group ACORN. Last week Judge Nina Gershon cemented her decision from last year that such action amounted to an unconstitutional bill of attainder. Judge Gershon has asked all federal agencies to allow ACORN funding without delay. You have been a big supporter of ACORN. What do you think of happened to it and why it happened?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, I think the Republicans systematically destroyed it, because ACORN was registering voters that tended to vote Democrat. It’s that simple. They picked them out, they singled them out, not because of whatever they thought that they were doing. They picked them out because they actually were effective in getting people who didn’t ordinarily have the chance to vote to vote. In my district alone, ACORN registered tens of thousands of people and caused those people to have a chance to participate in the political process that they never had before. And this infuriated the Republicans, so they destroyed ACORN.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Congressman Grayson, I want to ask you, finally, about US policy toward Israel. Vice President Biden was in Israel last week. Do you think he was blindsided? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton basically appeared on Meet the Press and said Israel’s response, while he was there, the announcement of building 1,600 new homes in a settlement in East Jerusalem, was, quote, “insulting.” White House senior adviser David Axelrod described Israel’s actions as “very, very destructive.” What’s your response?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: I think that it’s obvious at this point that the President wasn’t given adequate warning about a change in Israeli policy that he very much would have wanted to know about before the trip took place.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you think he should have been told? And do you think that Israel should be building these houses at all?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, that’s a different question. But I do think that if the Vice President is going to make an unusual trip to Israel, he needs to know what’s going to be happening on the ground before he goes there. It’s fair to say that he needs to know what’s going to be in the news regarding the peace situation in Israel when he’s heading to Israel. That’s a fair request on our part, and that’s why the administration reacted the way it did.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Israel was wrong to build — to announce this and to build them at all? You know, it’s been a debate about timing.
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, that’s a very controversial subject.
AMY GOODMAN: Right, it’s been a debate about, you know, the timing of the announcement. But do you think they’re wrong to do it altogether?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: If you’re talking about areas in East Jerusalem, I don’t think it’s really conceivable that the Israelis will ever give up that land. I just don’t think that’s plausible. If you’re talking about areas like Ari’el, areas elsewhere on the West Bank, I think that that’s much more debatable. One could easily conceive of a two-state solution that allows Israel very little of that land. Even the Israelis’ own maps that were presented at Taba provided that only a tiny fraction of that land would end up in Israeli hands. For building outside of those areas, that seems to be unduly provocative. For building in an area that Israel is going to end up with anyway, under any conceivable form of peace, you know, that’s much less harmful.
ANJALI KAMAT: And the Palestinian demand, supported by the US, that East Jerusalem would be a future capital of a future Palestinian state?
REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, I think any country — if Palestine becomes a country — is permitted to put its capital anywhere within its own area. I don’t think — I mean, you know, Israel has been vehement about the fact that it needs — it is allowed to choose its capital. I support Israel’s right to choose its capital in the area that it wants. Any country can locate its capital wherever it wants within its land. And that includes a future Palestinian state.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Alan Grayson, we thank you for being with us, Democrat of Florida. We’re going to stay on the issue of the Middle East with our next guest.