Give voters a voice in the debate over health care reform and they ask about the one thing most lawmakers decided from the start would not be considered: "Why not a single-payer program?"
That was by far the most popular question posed to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Thursday night, when they took questions on the House floor that had been submitted and voted for online -- something of a first for Congress.
The question-and-answer hour was expected to focus on public health care options as part of a health care landscape that would still be dominated by private insurance companies. But online voters, who cast almost 30,000 votes at progressivecaucus.org between Tuesday night and Thursday, hijacked the session, demanding to know why a single-payer program is not being considered.
Though only five of more than 750 questions were chosen to be asked at the event, some proved far more popular than others. The top questions included how much influence the insurance companies have had on the reform debate and why the public can't have a level of health care comparable to that of the assembled congressmen.
"What is it going to take for you to WAKE UP and smell the catastrophe that for-profit healthcare is?" read the fifth most popular question, the last on the list asked of the caucus members.
The novelty of the forum created a sense of actual dialogue between the legislators and their constituents, said Darcy Burner, the executive director of the nonprofit Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation, which advises the caucus and organized the discussion.
"Part of what we're trying to do is help build relationships between members of Congress and the grassroots such that there is more mutual trust than exists right now, so it didn't surprise me at all that the questions were somewhat adversarial," she said.
The legislators overwhelmingly support a single-payer program, Burner said, but don't consider it feasible. At this point, they're pulling for "a robust public plan that will provide real competition," she said.
The Progressive Caucus includes some 71 House Democrats, but only four made it to Thursday night's session: Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who moderated the forum.
"For decades, Americans' calls for health care reform have fallen on deaf ears in Congress," Ellison said during the meeting. As for Ellison's missing colleagues, Burner blamed delays that kept them from starting before 9 p.m., but she lauded the participation of the four who attended. Both the foundation and the caucus will continue to press for greater interaction with the public, she said.
"It's the people's House. It'd be nice if the people had more input," Burner said. "The more people who are participating, I think, the more valuable the dialogue's going to be."