U.S. mayors back single-payer health care

The U.S. Conference of Mayors June 23 adopted a resolution endorsing HR 676, the National Health Insurance Act. The bill, introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), would expand the Medicare system 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 step forward in the fight for national health care. The U.S. Conference of Mayors includes the mayors of 1,139 American cities that have a population of 30,000 or more.

“This carries a lot of weight because mayors, in a very real sense, are closer to the people than most elected officials, they are closer to the grassroots where their communities and their people are suffering,” Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said. She and seven other mayors introduced the resolution supporting HR 676.

“This is a major achievement, a qualitative change in the movement for genuine health care reform,” declared Dr. David Prensky, a retired dentist from Palm Beach, Fla., who was at the gathering backing the resolution. “It shows that our country’s mayors now support the kind of approach that every other industrialized country has — an approach that guarantees health care for everyone at an affordable cost.”

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

Advocates of the measure say it would assure universal coverage of all medically necessary services, contain costs by slashing bureaucracy, and assure patients a free choice of doctors.

The action by the nation’s mayors came as rising health care costs are draining local and state budgets of the resources they need to rebuild and restore infrastructure. With state and local coffers bleeding, in addition to having to pay for some of the medical services needed by the 48 million who are uninsured, cities face cuts in police and fire protection, road repairs, and parks and recreation.

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

The national program 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,” they say, because it combines the entire U.S. population into one large pool of over 300 million people.

Unlike the plans put forward by the presidential candidates, HR 676 completely eliminates private insurance companies. It is estimated that at least 30 percent of every health care dollar spent in the United States ends up as profit for these companies. Single-payer advocates point out that Medicare operates on less than a 5 percent overhead. Support for HR 676 has been growing rapidly. Healthcare-Now, a national coalition of labor and community groups, held a National Day of Protest Against the Insurance Industry on June 18. Demonstrations for HR 676 were organized in front of insurance company buildings in cities across the country. Many of the demonstrators noted that the U.S. is the only industrialized country without a national health insurance plan and that the result is thousands of preventable deaths each year.

Although 14 national unions and many union locals and state federations back HR 676, some still hesitate to give it unqualified support. They feel the political ability to strike such a sweeping blow against the 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 the convention of the Service Employees (SEIU), the nation’s largest union of health care workers, meeting last month in San Juan, Puerto Rico, delegates voted to support HR 676, despite the fact that SEIU President Andrew Stern has called the measure politically “un-doable.” The delegates passed a resolution saying the union will “continue to support HR 676 as one way to create a new, universal national 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, observers note. Supporters of the single-payer National Health Insurance Act refute the “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 privately 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.