Speaking up for single-payer in D.C.

August 4, 2009

WASHINGTON--Compromise and concessions with the private health industry have been the modus operandi for lawmakers in Washington. But outside of Congress on July 30, the message was quite the opposite.

As industry-bought politicians across the street paid lip service to the need for health care reform while gutting all genuine remedies to the health care crisis from proposed legislation, about 1,000 people rallied outside the Capitol in support of the one plan that would actually guarantee the right to health care for every American--single-payer.

Doctors, nurses, activists, patients and union members assembled amid the sweltering humidity in Upper Senate Park to declare, "Everybody in, nobody out!"

"There are multiple problems with the present congressional health care reform proposals, but allowing private insurance to continue to be involved is the most egregious," said Dr. David Scheiner, President Obama's former physician of 22 years and a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization advocating single-payer.

The rally was organized to celebrate Medicare's 44th birthday and was cosponsored by dozens of organizations, including the California Nurses Association, Healthcare-Now! and the Progressive Democrats of America. Single-payer advocates traveled from as far away as California to attend the rally, which was to be followed by activists lobbying their representatives.

Speakers at the rally pointed to Medicare as an example of a single-payer system that's been working effectively since 1965. They called the Medicare system a "uniquely American" approach to health care from which the socialized health systems in Canada and Europe took their inspiration.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) referred to "the great civil rights issue of our time" as being "the need for every man, woman and child to have health care as a right and not a privilege."

"Over 18 million people die every year because they don't have access to a doctor when they need that access. That's wrong," he said. Sanders argued that conservatives who claim to oppose wasteful spending--which is fraught in the current system--should join progressives in advocating for single-payer because it will eliminate an industry that allots only 70 cents to every health care dollar for actual medical care.

It was a rebuke to the conservative vilification of nationalized health care systems in other industrialized nations that spend half as much per patient for superior quality care.

The crowd was moved when an 11-year-old girl approached the stage to describe joining other activists in Iowa who were arrested in front of a Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters building. "I got arrested with the others because people are suffering," she said.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Jim Ferlo riled up the crowd when he said that "profiteering sweat hogs" in the insurance companies were the source of the problem with the present health care system. "We want single-payer, and we're not going to accept some bullshit watered-down proposals...And we will never let Obama forget that he supported single-payer," Ferlo said.

Other speakers included Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill. Many demonstrators held signs in support of Conyers' single-payer bill, HR 676, and the crowd joined in singing "Happy Birthday" to Medicare.

For some, the rally was a kick-off to an afternoon of lobbying their representatives on Capitol Hill, with a few planning to bring cupcakes to their representatives in the spirit of celebrating Medicare's birthday.

Of course, the powerful interests that single-payer advocates face are unlikely to be overcome by appealing to the sweet tooth of politicians. Baked treats cannot compete with the $1.3 million the insurance industry is pumping into lobbying efforts on a daily basis. And the effectiveness of activist lobbying efforts is limited for the same reason.

We won't win the fight against the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies on their own turf, which is the halls of Congress. We must take the fight to where our potential is the strongest--in the streets.

The July 30 rally was an important action, but there needs to be many more and larger actions like it if we are to win single-payer, cover the nearly 50 million uninsured people in this country, and abolish the profit motive from health care once and for all.

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