Yay! We passed the bill! No question about it, seeing the House pass the health reform bills, and watching the President sign one of them, felt like a moment of triumph. Despite our many many reservations, so many of us have worked so hard over the last year to achieve this victory! From my own work with the remarkable network that has sprung up around EQUAL, to the hard work of women's groups, progressive organizations, and public health; to the members of Congress who took on enormous obstacles: we all have a claim to this step forward. Speaker Nancy Pelosi clearly deserved major credit for working the bill through the Democratic caucus.
But there are bitter disappointments. The public option failed though it was, and is, popular. Reproductive rights and immigrants' rights are under assault. Corporations are gaining legal as well as de facto rights. The rabid right, while possibly diminishing and cornered, is nevertheless frightening. The opposition leadership is fanning the flames of hate, divisiveness and willful ignorance, as they experience defeat for the first time in a decade. Members of Congress are heckling each other, the President and the public. One staff member described the atmosphere as "vicious."
It's not all over yet, even on the most pragmatic level. The Senate debate continues, and Republicans are attempting every possible maneuver to derail the proceedings. The bill's return round-trip through the House could be quick and routine; or not.
Both the President and Rep. Dennis Kucinich framed the victory as one that could begin to reverse 30 years of regressive Reagan-era policies. While the details of the bill are largely technical, and far from revolutionary, one has only to think back to the tsunami of corporate opposition that buried similar proposals in the Clinton era to appreciate the potential significance of this accomplishment.
The legislation itself offers significant improvements for health coverage for many, while ducking the most far-reaching controls on costs. The immediate benefits this year include a tax credit for small businesses that offer insurance, a ban on pre-existing condition exclusions for children, the elimination of co-payments for preventive care, and a $250 rebate to Medicare beneficiaries who fall into the prescription drug plan's doughnut hole. In 2014, 16 million people will begin coverage through Medicaid (called MediCal in California), and millions more will be able to buy insurance through pools created by new state-based exchanges. The plan will limit insurance plans' ability to gouge sick enrollees in the small group market.
The public option would be a crucial factor in controlling costs and holding insurance companies accountable. Like Medicare and other public programs, the public option was envisioned as an entity with the clout to demand lower prices from health care providers, and also a real alternative for people seeking an escape from the predatory insurance industry. Its absence leaves a gaping hole in the program's viability.
There's no similar dispassionate analysis of the harm inflicted on women and immigrants. At best, the bills strengthen existing prohibitions on spending federal funds on abortion and for the first time intrude on the right and ability to buy abortion coverage with private dollars; and exclude tax-paying immigrants from health benefits others enjoy. These assaults are driven purely by vitriol.
The job for progressives is to rejoice in the prospects that may be opening up, and to stay angry about what we have lost, while taking a cold, hard look at the power dynamics that landed us here. A map of the House vote suggests a huge geographically-based divide in the U.S., with representatives from the more isolated middle of the country accounting for most of the Republicans, and the 34 Democrats who voted no. Can progressives win primaries against ConservaDems in those districts? A number of organizations are chomping at the bit to find out.
We have to come up with strategies to deepen and consolidate the public's approval of Medicare as a model for a stronger public role in the health care system, and link state based and national campaigns to pursue it.
Challenging sexism, racism and homophobia will be problematic in an era of economic recession. But our communities are organized and articulate. Winning the power to defend and advance our interests is not an option; our opponents have their knives drawn, in some cases literally.
Quoting Rep. Dennis Kucinich:
"We're at a pivotal moment in American history, and in contrast to a crippled presidency, I have to believe that this effort, however imperfect, will now have a broad positive effect on American society, and make possible many things that might not have otherwise been possible. Once this bill is signed into law, more Americans are going to be aware of this as they ask, What's in it for me? And as they become more familiar with the new law, more people will be accepting this bill. The president will have a stronger hand in domestic and international affairs, and that will be good for the country."
Is this President up for it, and up to it? Are we? The coming months will tell.
Follow Ellen R. Shaffer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ershaffer