Inside the Baucus-Single Payer Meeting–What Was Said, What’s Next

Today’s meeting of the nation’s leading single payer activists with Sen. Max Baucus was historic, and a recognition of the power of the tens of thousands of nurses, doctors, and grassroots activists across the country who have been turning up the heat on the policy makers in Washington.

Make no mistake – your voices are being heard. And, the protests and pressure will continue.

As Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, told Baucus, “there is a groundswell” across the country that will continue to press for single payer reform, and Baucus and other policy makers in Washington “are going to get to know us very well.”  In a later press conference, DeMoro blasted the conventional wisdom that single payer is not politically viable. “Is it politically viable to let people die and suffer from a lack of political will?” Noting the fight for women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement, she emphasized, “we’re going to have to turn up the heat. Women did not get the right to vote by voting on it.”

Today’s gripping meeting was in itself an important part of that campaign, with leaders of the CNA/NNOC, Physicians for a National Health Program, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, author of a single payer bill in the Senate, S 703, making a forceful, unfiltered case to one of the top power brokers in the Senate, Max Baucus, for single payer as the only reform likely to actually fix our broken healthcare system and effectively control costs.  A couple of photos from the press conference afterwards are here.

For the first time, Baucus, who has been deluged with protests inside his Senate Finance Committee which has been in the forefront of drafting legislation and in town hall meetings at home in Montana, was apologetic. “I made a mistake,” he said, “I should have left it (single payer) on the table, front and center with everything else.”

Baucus talked about his own positive experiences in Canada where he inspected the Canadian healthcare system first hand, “I was very impressed,” during the healthcare debate in the early 1990s, noting the contrast between a Montana hospital which has an “entire floor” of people devoted to billing, and other administrative paper work, and a nearby Canadian hospital which does it all “in one room.”

He agreed to use the power of his office to have charges dropped against the Baucus 13, nurses, doctors, and activists arrested for raising their voices in the committee hearings.

While Baucus continued to aver that single payer can not pass the legislature, the nurses and doctors pressed him to:

•              Hold a hearing in which the merits of single payer can be contrasted with the plans now rapidly advancing in the Senate. While Baucus said the tight timeline made that very difficult, Sanders noted that Sen. Chris Dodd is considering a health committee hearing on single payer, which Baucus could co-sponsor. Baucus said, “let me think about it.”

•              Have the Congressional Budget Office score, do a financial analysis, of single payer legislation in addition to other health bills it scores.

•              Support legislation to allow federal waivers for individual states to enact single payer systems as national role models (another Sanders bill).

•              Assist in arranging a similar meeting between single payer leaders and President Obama.

Ultimately, Baucus threw the ball back to the President, citing the demand of the President to Congress to have a bill on his desk by October. “He wants a big win on healthcare reform,” Baucus said.

But the rush to adopt a flawed bill would hardly serve the Senate or the President well, DeMoro noted. “The President would be putting himself in a very bad position. We don’t want that to happen.”

One after one, the other participants made compelling cases for single payer. Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, noted that only single payer can achieve effective cost controls. The alternatives being considered are “all unaffordable and unsustainable. Why pour more money into a dysfunctional system.”

PNHP co-founder Dr. David Himmelstein said  “the decision should be made on what’s going to work.” He cited the Massachusetts law, where he lives, which is considered a model for both the Baucus proposal and the pending Kennedy bill. The bill is rapidly “fraying,” said Himmelstein. Some 28,000 state residents are about to be cut off of subsidized coverage because the state can’t afford it, and new studies show conditions for many state residents back to where they were before the bill was passed with inadequate or no coverage, and medical bills they can’t pay.

Geri Jenkins, RN, Co-President of CNA/NNOC, said “we need evidence based policy,” and all the evidence shows that single payer is the best way to contain costs, improve quality, and achieve universality.

PNHP President Dr. Oliver Fein cited the study last year reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine that 59 percent of physicians support a single-payer type system, and a new study showing doctors waste three to four weeks a year on paperwork that could be spent caring for patients.

Sanders later praised the efforts of nurses, doctors and activists who have made single payer an inescapable part of the public discourse. “When you have the nurses and physicians saying the current system is not working,” scores of people saying health care is a right  and single payer the most cost effective approach, we’re seeing this grassroots movement growing and gaining momentum.

If you agree, why don’t you fax Max Baucus, maybe a couple times, and let him know that we need real healthcare reform, not lobbyist-driven pablum and nonsense statements.

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