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Health Care Is A Civil Right, Declares Congressman Kucinich

09/28/2009 10:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2004 as well as in 2008, serves as chairman of the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He's also a member of the Education and Labor Committee.

His knowledge and expertise on the role of government is evident. His passion for the rights of America's working class is apparent.

Kathleen Wells: You have a petition promoting health care as a civil right. Can you elaborate on this?

Congressman Kucinich: We have to make a determination in America whether health care is a basic right guaranteed by the Constitution or whether it's a privilege based on ability to pay. I assert that the Preamble to the Constitution, which speaks to promoting the general welfare, and Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which also speaks to promoting the general welfare, are quite to the point of a foundational purpose of our government. Education, security for the elderly and health care [are matters] that relate to the welfare of the people of the United States.

So, health care as a civil right recognizes that we in the United States have a system which upholds the right of all people to be able to receive back from their government some of the resources which they provide to the government and, in the words of Lincoln, to be able to provide for people collectively what they can't do for themselves individually.

Kathleen Wells: Do you believe health care reform legislation needs to fail before the American people wake up to this necessity?

Congressman Kucinich: No. We have to do everything we can to try to make for the American people the best of a bad system and that's exactly what this process is about right now because no matter what comes out of it, it's likely to fall far short of meeting the test of accessibility and affordability, it doesn't mean we shouldn't make an attempt.

Mr. [John] Conyers (D-MI) and I wrote H.R. 676 and it is an important vehicle for individuals to organize [around] at a local and state level. That is the work in those laboratories of democracy, which [US Supreme Court] Justice Brandeis so famously described. That is the work that will inevitably help set the stage for a national transformation.

Just as in Canada, the province of Saskatchewan had success with a single payer initiative that, eventually, helped disperse single payer throughout Canada.

So, I think we have to reorganize at the precinct level and the Congressional district level and begin the long-term work at the local level, at the public hearings and have the meet-ups to be able to share people's stories about the system. When enough people have the awareness of the deficiencies of this present system, this for-profit system, the outcry will be so powerful -- even more so than now -- that it will propel the change in Washington.

This system is not sustainable, the system that we have right now. It's not sustainable and, yet, the only aspect of the system that is sustainable (provided we make some changes) is Medicare.

Kathleen Wells: What is the status of bill H.R. 676 now?

Congressman Kucinich: It's still in committee. It has 70 co-sponsors. It's noteworthy that the [Obama] Administration took single payer off the table immediately. It has not received a hearing in any substantive way in this Congress because the focus has been first on a public option, which could be better called, "the incredible disappearing public option." Now, the debate is over a private mandate, but the ultimate public option is single payer. It was taken off the table because there was an underlying assumption that there was no way that anything like this could pass. But there wasn't any effort to do so. So, that thinking became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'd be the first to admit that there needs to be a deeper effort across the country that will make single payer a reality, but the political process here has frustrated any effort to even talk about it.

The Democratic Party platform has three times rejected (2000, 2004 and 2008) efforts to put single payer in the Democratic platform.

Kathleen Wells: Why is that?

Congressman Kucinich: Because of the influence of the insurance companies. It doesn't get very complicated. Insurance companies have to recognize that it's not the business of government to pick winners and losers in the private sector and our business is to promote the general welfare.

I understand the realities of today's system. One of the discussions that we still have to have is the necessity of changing campaign finance law. If we had public financing of political campaigns, it would be much easier to get a "Medicare for all" bill through the Congress. All you have to do is look at the influence of insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies and see that they are able to effectively protect the position that they have, that there is a form of peonage which a good many Americans are held to as a result of confiscatory premiums, co-pays and deductibles.

Kathleen Wells: Insurance executives testified at a subcommittee hearing you recently chaired. Can you tell Huffington Post readers what you learned from that hearing?

Congressman Kucinich: Well, there was an admission from insurance executives that when they turn down someone that has cancer and stop a cancer patient from getting additional treatment that, in fact, it could lead to that person becoming even more gravely ill and could lead to the death of the person.

Insurance companies are not charity institutions. They have a primary obligation to their shareholders and insurance companies make money [by] not providing health care. They don't make money providing health care. They make money [by] not providing health care. We are dealing with a flawed model if we are looking for insurance companies to be involved in the delivery of health care. They are just being what they are. If we understand the role of insurance companies, then we know that it is not sufficient. If our goal is to provide health care for people, it's not sufficient to let insurance companies have overwhelming influence in being able to control the resources in the health care system.

Kathleen Wells: It seems obvious to me that we, the American people, are voting people into office that support the interest of the insurance companies.

Congressman Kucinich: Well, an enlightened citizenry is essential for democracy. There needs to be transparency and people need to take it upon themselves to see who is contributing to their elected representatives and see if those contributions could possibly be influencing the votes of the representative in a manner that is adverse to the public interest. I have always felt that if you have public funding of elections, you have government in the public interest. If you have private funding of elections, you have government in the private interest.

There are people who have complained about government run health care, not realizing that we have Medicare, which the government funds; not realizing that we have [health care for] Veterans, which the government runs. But I think the real concern here is not government run health care, it's a government run government. The underlying concern is that somehow, in someway, that someday you actually may have a government that would function in the public interest. My God, if that happens, what would these various interests groups do to survive? They wouldn't have their handout from the government, they wouldn't have the guaranteed profits from the government and they wouldn't have the privileged position and get bailouts from the government. The government has effectively been captured by various interests groups.

We are in the constant effort to try and wrestle our rights back from these interest groups who use our own tax dollars to recycle them back to candidates who then deliver a handsome return on an investment by crafting policies that are identical to the wishes of certain industries.

Kathleen Wells: When you say the government, who is the government?

Congressman Kucinich: We are. The people. We, the people. That's exactly where it starts - we're the government.

Kathleen Wells: Then what is the role of government?

Congressman Kucinich: The role of government is to do for people, collectively, what they can't do for themselves individually. For example, at a local level we have governments that provide police and fire and street repair and waste collection. Some governments [also] provide lighting and water and there are numerous services at a local level that government provides, [such as] education and libraries.

There is an idea that is old as our nation: that as we gather as we, the people, we enact a ceremony of citizenship where we recognize our mutuality, our common interest and we bond together in support of that. The founders, when they wrote the Preamble, the words were, "We, the people." Not me, the person, but "We, the people." There was a sense of commonality and so, there is a purpose for government. These are foundational purposes. Now, if someone doesn't like that, go and change the Constitution. But as long as this is the Constitution that we all agree to uphold, then we ought to do something about making it more effective.

Kathleen Wells: There are reports that the House wants a public option, but that the Senate may not be able to get a public option. So, when you guys get into conference, what can the American people expect in terms of health care reform legislation?

Congressman Kucinich: My concern has always been that in the conference committee the public option would be dropped and the American people would then be given a choice [of] which private for-profit insurance company must they buy a product from since it would be a mandate.

Kathleen Wells: Will you vote for H.R. 3200 when it comes to the floor?

Congressman Kucinich: I don't know how I'm going to vote -- it all depends. I've learned a long time ago that you have to be very careful about determining what your vote is going to be until you've seen the bill. I'll read the bill and I'll know what's in it at that time, but it keeps changing.

You may be aware that I was able to get an amendment to the bill in the Education and Labor Committee, which will protect the rights of states to create their own single payer system if they so choose.

Right now, the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act (ERISA) has been interpreted by various courts as preempting the rights of states and some localities from creating their own health care system. My amendment would allow states to be granted a waiver from that ERISA preemption and would, in effect, protect the right of states to create their own single payer system. That's really important.

I just came from the Democratic Caucus where I addressed the Caucus and urged them, once again, to protect the Kucinich amendment to H.R. 3200. So, that's important that it be in the bill. Another threshold is the size of the public option. It has to be substantive enough to be able to enable the public to have real bargaining power.

Kathleen Wells: If it's not, is that a deal breaker for you?

Congressman Kucinich: It would be very difficult to vote for a bill if there is no public option in it because, otherwise, all you are doing is mandating people to buy private insurance. If that's the best that we can do with 47 million Americans with no health insurance because they can't afford it and another 50 million Americans under-insured because they are very vulnerable with the co-pays and the deductibles, then we have to ask ourselves what's wrong with this system?

Kathleen Wells: If that's the best that we can do and the President doesn't get health care reform passed, is there not a bigger problem?

Congressman Kucinich: Well, that's why I believe that we have to determine as Americans that health care is a civil right. If we do that, then we understand, just like the civil rights movement before us, that we have to look at a long struggle here that will involve millions of people who will have to take a stand and who will have to do it in ways that are quite strenuous and vociferous. That has always been the tradition of American history. People are able to secure rights only through struggle - that's the nature of our system.

So, we are looking at a system that is not about health care. Today, it is about insurance care and we have to move from insurance care to health care. I think that is what a civil rights movement will have to inspire.