Health reform supporters take center stage

Much of the media continues to focus on details of the Obama administration’s health reform strategy, the role of a handful of senators who represent almost as many cows as people, and the bizarre tactics of right-wing extremists.

But union members and their progressive allies are mobilizing to win real health care reform with a strong public plan option.

Yesterday alone, hundreds of workers committed to a public option spoke out at a Clovis, N.M., town hall meeting with Sen. Jeff Bingaman. Hundreds did the same at Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder’s Little Rock, Ark., meeting. Another hundred met AFSCME’s Highway to Health Care tour bus as it pulled into Shreveport, La.

In Rutland, Vt., hundreds of workers carrying red placards and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Healthcare is a Human Right” took part in that town’s second town hall meeting in just over a month. They shifted the debate 180 degrees from the earlier meeting. The crowd, many of them members of the Vermont Workers’ Center run by Jobs with Justice, made sure their voices were heard this time, drawing a sharp contrast with the “tea party” pushed by right-wing radio talking heads weeks before.

Today, union members and allies will be rallying for health reform outside President Obama’s town hall meeting at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. They aim to overwhelm the planned corporate-backed right-wing demonstrators also expected to gather there.

Stewart Acuff, special assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, charged in the Huffington Post that the radical right is attempting to shut down health care reform and change, by intimidation and force and the power of Big Lies. He said union members and their allies are fighting for “a health care system that ensures quality health care for all and checks the insane greed of the insurance industry.”

In a phone interview, Acuff clarified what he meant by the “fight” for health care.

“I don’t mean the thuggishness used by the right,” Acuff said. “I mean peaceful, nonviolent mobilization that counters the Big Lies of the right, gives cover to weak Democrats and demonstrates convincingly that our ideas and policies are in the interests of a stronger, healthier, freer and fairer America.”

The increased mobilization of the progressive majority is having its impact as elected officials who support reform increasingly challenge extremists who show up at their forums.

Leading the way was Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., when a woman at his Dartmouth, Mass., town hall meeting waived a photo of President Obama defaced with a Hitler mustache and claimed the president supports a “Nazi policy.”

Frank replied, to cheers and applause from the crowd: “On what planet do you spend most of your time? Ma’m, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.”

National leaders in the health care reform movement, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly outspoken in their support for real reform with a robust public option.

Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said yesterday, “This vote is not about Democrats versus Republicans and conservatives and liberals and all that stuff. This is about whether you’re going to vote for the people who donated to your campaigns – the health insurance industry – or you’re going to vote for the people who pay your salary. And we’re going to be watching, because there are going to be 535 people casting that vote.”

Several new polls show strong support for the public health insurance option.

In its latest August survey, Quinnipiac found 62 percent of respondents backed a public option that would allow working families to choose between a private plan or a public plan.

The latest New York Times/CBS poll shows 66 percent support for the public option while 56 percent of respondents told Time, in its poll, that they backed the public option.

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute, said a public plan option “will inject some badly needed competition into the system and force private insurers to compete on efficiency and quality rather than the way they currently compete for business: enrolling the lowest-cost workers and businesses.”

Labor and its allies have shown no enthusiasm for the idea of health care “cooperatives,” which has been pushed by some as an alternative to a public option.

“The so-called health care cooperative alternative is severely flawed and unworkable,” said Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council. “Creating a patchwork of state or regional cooperatives where none exist just seems like an extremely costly and very bad idea. What you end up with, if you could even create one at all, would be a series of fragmented risk pools and duplicative administrative structures around the country. The only way to force competition on the insurance companies is a strong public plan option.”

jowjcik @ pww.org