Step Up the Fight for Single-Payer

President Barack Obama finally may be getting the message: Seeking bipartisan support for healthcare reform will be impossible.

The president told fellow Democrats during a lunch in August, according to the New York Times, “they might have to pass a bill with only Democratic votes if Republicans stood in the way.”

The paper quoted Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., quoting the president (Obama didn’t speak to the paper about the lunch) as saying, “The White House is not a bad bully pulpit.”

Isn’t this what progressives have been saying since January?

At the same time, he’s sending signals that an aggressive use of the bully pulpit remains off the table. The president remains unwilling to go to the mat for any specific healthcare goal, which could leave reform gutted and ineffective. The key to the plan outlined by the president is the public option, the government-run plan designed to compete with and drive down costs at private insurers.

The public option, to my way of thinking, falls far short of real reform — only a single-payer system can fix the mess that our healthcare system is in — but it is still better than the various neutered plans being offered in its stead by so-called moderates.

The consumer-owned nonprofit cooperatives being floated, for instance, would lack the scale of the public option, making it far less effective as a counterweight to the insurance companies.

John Nichols, of The Nation, says progressives need to change the tenor of the discussion, extricating ourselves from “the narrow ‘debate’ between ‘party of no’ Republicans who favor no reform at all, and Blue Dog Democrats, whose ‘reform’ is to make a bad system worse.” Progressives, he says, “should just say ‘yes’ to real reform.”

“Campaigning for single-payer in August — by demanding that members of the House agree to support such a plan when it comes up for a vote, and by urging senators to schedule and support a similar vote in their chamber — is the best was to assure that whatever reform ultimately comes will err on the side of Americans who need healthcare rather than insurance companies that would deny them that care,” he wrote.

Keeping single-payer off the table — done at the behest of the insurance industry by Congressional leaders whose campaign chests have been packed with insurance-industry cash — has meant that the debate has veered wildly to the right, despite the obvious support for reform among the public.

The polls, while not as favorable to the president as they were when the healthcare debate started, show that the public remains strongly in favor of reform.

A Time poll conducted in late July showed that 69% of Americans believe it is somewhat or very important that Congress pass reform within the next few months. The same poll found that 55% of voters believe the healthcare status quo was only fair or poor and that 60% believe the private health insurers are doing only a fair or poor job.

Voters also back expanded coverage by a two-to-one margin, even if that requires subsidies, and by an almost six-to-one margin they support a ban on denying coverage based on a pre-existing condition.

And, perhaps most importantly, the polls shows support — 56% to 36% — for a public option and a slight majority in favor (49-46) of, yes, a single-payer system.

Basically, the public is on the right side of this debate and well out in front of the politicians.

But that should not be a surprise. The public is not getting campaign contributions from the health insurance and medical industries.

Which brings me back to the Nichols piece. He writes that the current outlines of the debate are more likely to lead to disaster than real reform.

“The worst mistake that progressives could make in August would be to put their time and energy into getting members of Congress to agree to back a barely-acceptable compromise that could end up being unacceptable by the time the lobbyists and their political handmaidens finish with it,” he said.

“Better to get representatives and senators to commit to back single-payer bills.

“That does not prevent them from ultimately agreeing to compromise measures.

“But it gets them to begin on the side of real reform,” he added, “and lessens the likelihood that the eventual deals will be as bad as the schemes that the Blue Dogs tried to impose before the break.”

And it could break the hold that the conventional wisdom has on Washington — including that notable change agent, Barack Obama, who is in danger of wasting all the optimism that greeted his election with his commitment to Clintonian incrementalism and political caution.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the online editor for The Princeton Packet newspaper group in central New Jersey. E-mail; blog;;

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2009

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