Health care for all on the horizon

Nation’s mayors endorse single-payer bill

Universal health care moved closer to reality when the U.S. Conference of Mayors upped the ante June 23 by backing HR 676, the National Health Insurance Act. The bill, introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), would expand Medicare to cover everyone in the United States under a single-payer national health insurance system.

The mayors’ decision to back the bill is considered a major leap forward in the fight for national health care. The U.S. Conference of Mayors includes the mayors of 1,139 cities with populations of 30,000 or more. Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said the decision carries a lot of weight because mayors are closer to the people than most elected officials. “They are closer to the grass roots where their communities and their people are suffering,” she said. Dixon and seven other mayors introduced the resolution supporting the single-payer bill.

Observers note that as support for the Conyers bill grows, the likelihood of winning some type of national health insurance program becomes greater.

Nine days after the mayors acted, a new coalition, Health Care for America Now, announced it will spend $40 million in an ad campaign to push national health insurance. The group’s official spokesperson is Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards. A big chunk of the funding, $25 million, is coming from the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reported July 2 that Sen. Edward Kennedy is renewing his determination to make universal healthcare a reality.

Although Kennedy’s plan would likely not be as sweeping a change as HR 676, the report said he feels that the time is now for overhaul of the nation’s health care system and that necessary political support is there. His aides are already holding meetings to build bipartisan support for a major initiative. Kennedy, it is believed, feels it is crucial to move quickly in order to capture the momentum from the election of a new president.

Advocates for HR 676, backed now by hundreds of labor organizations and physicians’ and nurses’ groups, in addition to the nation’s mayors, point out that the bill would save money and control costs by replacing the many private insurance companies with a single national health insurance program.

Speaking about the mayors’ decision to back the Conyers bill, Dr. David Prensky, a retired dentist from Palm Beach, Fla., said, “This is a major achievement, a qualitative change in the movement for genuine health care reform. It shows that our country’s mayors now support the kind of approach that every other industrialized country has.”

Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Plan, said, “The mayors, by this action, have put single-payer health care at the top of the agenda for the 2008 elections.”

The single-payer national program called for in HR 676 would negotiate fees with providers, purchase drugs and medical supplies in bulk, and monitor budgets and capital plans for hospitals. It minimizes cost hikes associated with “risk,” advocates say, because it combines the entire U.S. population into one large pool of over 300 million people.

Backers see elimination of private insurance companies as important because estimates are that 30 percent of every health care dollar spent ends up as profit for these companies. Medicare is known to operate on less than a 5 percent overhead.

The push for HR 676 is taking place both in Congress and out in the streets. Demonstrations demanding single-payer national health insurance were held in front of insurance company offices in cities across the country June 18.

Although 14 national unions and many union locals and state federations back HR 676, some still hesitate to put all their eggs into one health care basket. Their fear is that, despite enormous support for HR 676, the political ability to strike a final sweeping blow against the health insurance companies may not yet exist.

Rank-and-file support for the single-payer approach, however, is evident. This was the case when SEIU recently decided to back single-payer national health care as one of several alternatives.

At its convention in Puerto Rico last month, the nation’s largest union of health care workers voted to support HR 676 even though its president, Andrew Stern, has called the measure politically “undoable.” The delegates passed a resolution saying the union will “continue to support HR 676 as one way to create a new, universal health care system” and “will urge support of similar legislation in the states.”

Although the resolution allows the union leadership to determine what course of action to follow, it opens the door for those in the union who want to push single-payer to do so.

Supporters of HR 676 refute “misleading” and “inaccurate” information put out in the media by the bill’s opponents, such as the claim that all medical decisions would be made by government bureaucrats.

In reality, HR 676 supporters say, it will allow all decisions to be made by patients and their doctors. They point out that under the current system most major medical decisions are made by bureaucrats in the service of private insurance companies.

jwojcik @pww,org.