Nursing a Movement

Affordable health care: 46 million Americans want it so bad they can almost taste it.
Far be it for a tiny, local alternative news-weekly to predict the future of the Dem-Dem Congress (particularly when palms are so much harder to read with a thinner grease trail to follow), but even us yokels understand four out of five Doonesbury strips and know that the points on Bush’s crown have all gone moot. The proof is in the Google search for “Republican Agenda.” The Republican National Committee’s hit:  “Error 404, File Not Found.”

The Democrats will steer congressional debate, but the greater government overhaul will have to wait until Bush is yanked away from the veto button (not that he’s made much use of it). Instead, the Democrats will spend the next two years treading heavily and carrying small sticks. Their success will hinge on how noisily they gut certain presidential pet projects and call the public’s attention to key liberal issues. If they can hold out until 2008 and take the presidency, then they can start passing the real (new) deal.

For the rest of the nation, this means grassroots organizations have two years to build their bases and pick their 2008 candidates and hype their positions.

Three weeks before the November 2006 election, the Texas Coalition for Universal Health Care Rights hosted their first community “Congressional Hearing” on the need for single-payer health insurance. Using the plan proposed by Representative John Conyers in 2003, the coalition seeks to eliminate health-insurance companies and pay doctors using government funds provided by repealing the Bush tax cuts, leveling a 3-percent payroll tax increase on employers, and a 5-percent tax on the top 5-percent income earners. The national health-insurance plan would cover all U.S. residents, including undocumented

On October 17, the day of the event at the Mexican American Unity Council building, the cashier at the Vista Express convenience store couldn’t explain how the socialist newspaper Revolution! made it onto his newsstand. But across the road a security guard from the controversial Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, aka ACORN, patrolled the parking lot in his bright red T-shirt and beret, and inside, another socialist paper, People’s Weekly World, was being circulated among the hearing’s attendees. Nevertheless, Marilyn Clement, the national coordinator for Healthcare-NOW argued that single-payer health care was far from socialist.

“Just so we’re real clear about what it means: socialized medicine is when the hospitals are owned by the state, the doctors work for the state, the nurses work for the state, rather than having a private system,” Clement told the attendees. “What we’re talking about is a publicly funded, privately delivered system.”

It may not be socialist, but it’s certainly foreign. Much of Europe utilizes some form of national health care, leaving the U.S.’s health-care system ranked 37th best on the planet according to the World Health Organization. Within the nation, our state ranks the highest for uninsured individuals: 25 percent of Texas residents have no health coverage, a full four percentage points higher than the next in line, New Mexico, according to the U.S. Census. The U.S. Center for Disease Control estimates are higher: in 2005, 28 percent of Texas residents were insured, a slight improvement over the 30 percent uninsured in 2002. During the same period, Bexar County’s uninsured statistic has risen from 20 to 23 percent.

Nevertheless, if event turnout is any indication, health care wasn’t on the congressional radar leading up to the election. Only U.S. Representative Charlie Gonzales sent an aide to the hearing, and as far as media was concerned, organizer as Frank Valdez put the smile on our faces, saying “The Current’s the only one with the balls to cover this.”

Valdez later told the meeting, “we’re going to have to start doing it city by city ... and eventually this is going to build into a huge movement. Right now, we’re just the embryo of the movement.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said as much on The Daily Show with John Stewart, explaining that his party will start by pushing for prescription-drug reform and a universal health-care precursor that would cover anyone under the age of 25. He also hinted that he would like to see a full universal-care proposal under the new presidency. Healthcare-NOW’s goal is to lobby Congress to pass the legislation in

“They’ve been doing it for years now, these child-health things, and it’s incremental, and we’re really hoping for something more than incremental,” Clement told the Current in a post-election interview. “It’s not going to be that long before we’ll have a new president. All I’m saying is, if they don’t work on it now, then I think they’ll be out of there next election, because I think people really expect them to move on it. People will be understanding if they see them having hearings and really bringing in people to testify. And we’d bring in 10,000 people to testify about what’s happening to them in the health-care system.”

Devil’s Advocate
Hitting the universal-health-care movement’s chief rabble-rouser with our hypothetical neo-con Q&A.

In all journalistic honesty, we’re big fans of the concept of national health care, if only because it allows starving artists (and writers) to survive as freelancers without any of this selling-out-to-pay-for-anti-depressants crap. But, for the sake of objectivity we got argumentative with Marilyn Clement, the national coordinator for Healthcare-NOW, about H.B. 676, U.S. Representative John Conyers’s single-payer health-care bill.

Let’s say I’m a doctor. I have a practice in a fairly affluent neighborhood. I’m able to charge more because I’m dealing particularly with affluent people. Once there’s a flat rate for what doctors are getting reimbursed, my income’s going to drop. Why should I go along with this?

The legislation guarantees that doctors will not make less than they’re now making. That part was put in by the Physicians for a National Health Program who wanted to be sure that the doctors were not hurt. Now, I think there’ll be some leveling off in terms of the doctors that make so much money — the surgeons who make $25,000 a day — and there will be much more input in to preventative care, and, you know, everybody having a doctor, everyone being able to choose their doctor, and go to the doctor when they’re sick.

That will mean I’ll have to deal with a lot more patients, a lot more quickly. That’s harder work for me and I don’t like it.

It means that we might have to have more doctors.

I’ve got this wonderful office. It’s huge, it’s beautiful and it cost me a fortune because I’ve got TVs and PlayStations for kids to play in the waiting room. I’ve got piped-in music and I’ve got live bands on Thursdays.

And you have 12 people billing insurance companies that you’re paying for every day.

Yeah, but I’m able to get this out of my patients because they like having a nice waiting room with a selection of magazines. Am I going to get reimbursed for my facilities?

I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t.

Let’s say I’m a non-smoking taxpayer and I don’t mind paying taxes for health insurance, but I don’t see why I have to pay the same amount of taxes as a smoker, when a smoker’s going to be costing the health system a lot more.

So you think the government should get involved in determining what people’s habits should be?

Well, let’s say I work out three times a day, I eat healthy, I brush my teeth. Can you imagine there being sort of a tax break for people who regularly demonstrate better health than other people?

It’s a great idea. It could be put forward. This isn’t the total be-all and end-all of bills. This is an excellent, excellent bill that we have in Congress and it will be negotiated when it’s really on the table. People can say we really want alternative food things and vitamins covered, and we want this and we want that and some people will say “We don’t want abortion covered!” and so it’s going to be a discussion.

Will this open the door for legislation saying we’re going to control your health because we control your health care?

The only thing that “Medicare For All,” what we’re calling it, does is change the payer. It takes it out of the hands of 1,200 to 1,500 insurance companies and puts it into our hands. We vote, we get to choose who’s running the government — if we’re lucky — and our votes get counted. If they don’t do it the way we want it, we put them out. If it’s the insurance companies, you don’t have any leverage whatsoever.

—  Dave Maass

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