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Thinking Big on Health Care - And Everything Else

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Last Friday, I flew to Minneapolis from Helena to speak to the Gamaliel National Leadership Assembly on behalf of the Progressive States Network. Before the packed event, I had lunch with the Gamaliel Foundation's top staff, Dr. Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches and folks from SEIU, including the union's president Andy Stern. We discussed a number of issues we are all collectively focusing on in our own work, and as the conversation progressed, we all kept coming back to health care.

It is no secret that America's health care system is so quickly breaking down that it is becoming a major obstacle to our global economic competitiveness. It costs less to make a car in Canada, for instance, because the Canada has a universal health care system that lowers the per-worker health care costs for employers.

This, of course, says nothing of the immorality of the wealthiest country in human history having roughly one in seven uninsured citizens within its midst. In the money-dominated, celebrity-obsessed, substance-free swamp that has become America's political discourse, Beltway reporters, pundits and politicians only talk about issues when rich or powerful people see those issues as bothering them, and when they do talk about those issues, it is only in dry economic terms that do not address the actual human casualties of the situation (as an off-topic example, notice Rep. Steny Hoyer's comment today in the New York Times where he says "When prominent C.E.O.s and military leaders get together to advocate an issue as important as energy security, people listen" - right, because it's not a problem when Joe and Jane Sixpack get ripped off with high gas prices, it's only when corporate executives say its time to jump do most politicians ask "how high?").

Barely any of our national media bother to mention, for instance, that investment banks like Goldman Sachs are simultaneously pocketing billions in taxpayer handouts and reporting record profits, while workers' benefits are slashed. Barely any politicians bothered to raise questions about the fact that the recent Medicare bill allows companies to reap special tax subsidies even as they cut off retiree health benefits. No, no - we are instead fed a steady diet of cable scream fests about which party's presidential candidates are ahead in the horse race, pundits who use their "expertise" to liken the dress of one American politician to that of Iran's right-wing ruler, and political "insiders" who view our entire democracy as, at best, a sport, and more often as a tool to line their own pockets.

But as Andy Stern said over and over again at our lunch, health care reform is going to break through this noise, whether the Beltway elites, the presidential candidates, the professional political pontificators or the K Street lobbyists like it or not. In states and municipalities all over the country, legislators are looking to use their power to expand health care. And now, today in Congress, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) is courageously stepping forward and presenting universal health care legislation. Joined by Stern, the advocacy group Families USA and the CEO of Safeway, Wyden is ignoring the inevitable taunts of "Hillarycare" that will come from the right, and the knee-jerk attacks of "liberal" that will come from the corporate-funded faux "centrists." He is, instead, aiming for the real center of American public opinion which has long supported government intervention to create a universal health care system.

The Associated Press gives us some details on Wyden's proposal:

"[The plan] is an outgrowth of work by the Citizens' Health Care Working Group, a 14-member panel that went to 50 communities around the country and heard from 28,000 people about how to overhaul the nation's health care system. The group, created in 2003 by legislation sponsored by Wyden and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, recommended that the government take steps to guarantee that all Americans have basic health insurance coverage by 2012. Wyden said his new plan would allow workers to carry their health insurance from job to job without penalty. More efficient administration and more promotion of competition for health care plans, he said, would allow greater coverage while costing no more than the government is paying today for health insurance coverage. Called the Healthy Americans Act, the plan would cover all Americans except those on Medicare or those who receive health care through the military. It would require that employers "cash out" their existing health plans by terminating coverage and paying the amount saved directly to workers as increased wages. Workers then would be required to buy health insurance from a large pool of private plans. After two years, companies would no longer have to pay the higher wages. Instead, Wyden said, they would pay into an insurance pool, based on annual revenues and the number of full-time workers."

The story goes on to note that the Lewin Group, a Virginia-based health care consulting firm, "said the plan would reduce health spending by private employers by nearly three-quarters and would save $1.4 trillion in total national health care spending over the next decade." You can find the detailed proposal and the Lewin Group study at www.StandTallForAmerica.com.

I want to be clear - I'm sure there will be questions and concerns about Wyden's exact proposal. It's probably not a perfect bill, and it is not a traditional single-payer system that I and others have advocated for. But there is not going to be a perfect silver-bullet solution to the health care crisis - and the fact that we now have a U.S. Senator preparing to use the new Congress to force a real debate on universal health care is a major step forward. That debate will force the Beltway media and the country at large to start thinking once again about a big issue that confronts the nation - and hopefully, will get us back to focusing not on cults of personality, not on the horse race, but on challenging the hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests and actually making substantive change that can improve the lives of millions of people.