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Long and Winding Road to Universal Healthcare

Even as Obama takes his case for comprehensive health care reform to the country, only a cockeyed optimist could believe Congress will soon produce anything remotely resembling the universal healthcare.
State Senator (Ret.) Sheila Kuehl

State Senator (Ret.) Sheila Kuehl

Even as President Barack Obama takes his case for health care reform to Congress and to the American people in nonstop appearances, only a cockeyed optimist could believe Congress will soon produce anything remotely resembling the universal healthcare enjoyed in so many other countries around the world.

Almost before she found her desk in June, newly appointed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took the single-payer option off the table: "That's not what anyone is talking about—mostly because the president feels strongly, as I do, that dismantling private health coverage for the 180 million Americans that have it, discouraging more employers from coming into the marketplace, is really the bad direction to go."

Now, you’ve got the Senate Finance Committee under centrist Democrat Max Baucus (Dem., Montana) edging toward a weak-kneed compromise which would drop even the government-funded public option that Obama favors.

Although public figures and national organizations supporting more aggressive healthcare reform still encourage their supporters to urge a more courageous stance on Congress, a more promising approach is beginning to emerge. Though less immediate, this plan involves implementing universal healthcare in selected states—including here in California—both to demonstrate the concept’s feasibility before taking such a bold program national but also because state-by-state battles in more receptive or more desperate parts of the country might actually be won.

Shifting to Fiscal Imperatives
“We’re changing our approach from moral imperatives to fiscal ones,” said Matt Hendrickson, M.D., at a panel session this past Sunday to explore single-payer options both nationally and here in California. “One third of health spending is consumed by administrative costs. That’s where the single-payer savings will be.”

Hendrickson, an emergency room physician living in Santa Monica with his wife and two children, founded the Southern California Chapter of Physicians for National Healthcare Program, a national organization of 16,000 physicians advocating a single-payer solution for our healthcare crisis.

“There’s been 200 times more growth in administration than in patient treatment costs,” he said in speaking to a mostly retirement-age progressive political activists at the event at Santa Monica's main library organized by the Santa Monica Democratic Club and allied groups. “A single-payer plan would drop annual healthcare costs by $5,000 per person over the next 15 years.”

“In the US, we spend $4,000 per capita annually in public healthcare funds. In Japan, it’s $2,470. The current system is unsustainable,” Hendrickson continued. His fact-filled presentation indicated that two out of three bankruptcies are medically related here in the United States; three-quarters of the people involved were insured.

“At the current rate of growth, health insurance premiums are projected to surpass total household income by 2025,” Hendrickson concluded. “That’s right around the corner.”

A State-by-State Approach
“We’re not getting single-payer nationally, ” said Don Schroeder, an Emmy award-winning producer who joined Hendrickson on the panel along with Kathy Daniel, RN, from the California Nurses Association. "But like in Canada, we’ll do it state by state, just as they did it province by province."

While Schroeder encouraged the audience to support Obama’s current efforts and lobby Congress to include some government-supported public option, he doesn’t believe the public option will succeed.

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“If all uninsured Americans were included, the government-funded plan would have leverage with pharmaceutical companies and other supplies to drive down costs,” he said. “But that’s not how it’s shaping up. And if you don’t have enough people enrolled in the public option, it can’t compete effectively with the big insurance companies and all their billions of dollars.”

As co-chair of the California OneCare Campaign, Schroeder screened “California One Care: For All, For Less,” his new video extolling comprehensive healthcare reform in California. He then laid out his organization’s seven-step plan for finally winning full approval for universal healthcare in California. Included are steps to

  • network with like-minded organizations as he was doing last Sunday
  • develop a leadership structure anchored by State Senators Sheila Kuehl and Mark Leno
  • create a grassroots organization that would have at least one team in every Zipcode across the state—6,150 teams
  • exploit netroots through social networking
  • develop a viral advertising campaign that would produce a new television ad everyday for a full year
  • involve Hollywood celebrities, and
  • build fundraising capabilities

Schroeder is using his filmmaking talents to create a series of television spots involving Hollywood and sports celebrities. Soon, all comers can submit their contributions to a creat a full-year campaign with one-a-day spots to run on public and commercial television. Here's one with Lily Tomlin Schroeder created:

“We need to reach $5 million per year to make this plan work,” Schroeder said. “And $50 million would be better.”

Recalling that universal healthcare bills authored by former State Senator Sheila Kuehl were twice passed by the California Legislature, only to see Gov. Arnold Swartzenegger veto them, Schroeder believes State Senator Mark Leno’s current bill (SB 810) will also pass -- and be vetoed.

“Swartzeneggar took $4 million in campaign donations from the health insurance industry," Schroder said. "There’s no way he’s going to sign single-payer.”

But Arnold doesn’t have a lifetime appointment, so a Democratic governor could take his place in the next election. Among front-runners for the governorship, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom reportedly is foursquare behind universal healthcare, though Attorney General Jerry Brown’s support is less clear. Schroeder also pointed out that both houses of California’s legislature are just three seats short of the two-thirds Democratic majority, which would ensure passage no matter who’s smoking cigars in the governor’s mansion if those seats could be pushed to the Democratic column in the party's ongoing Red-to-Blue effort.

“But then there will be an initiative. There’s so much money involved, you know the health insurance industry will have to bring one forward,” Schroeder concluded. “We’ll have to win that battle, too.”

A Strong, United Grassroots Movement
Kathy Daniel quoted Senator Bernie Sanders (Ind., Vermont) to remind the audience what’s at stake and what will be needed:

“In my view, the fight for universal and comprehensive health care is the civil rights battle of our time. Like the other great struggles in our history that have made us a more democratic and just society, victory will require a strong and united grassroots movement that is prepared to take on the very powerful and wealthy special interests that benefit from this failing health care system.


Dick Price
Editor, LA Progressive