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A Lot of Tired Feet Can Reform Health Care


Due to my background, an inquiry of me was made to join two organizations, the Illinois branch of Healthcare For American Now (HCAN) and Illinois Main Street Alliance, in their efforts to meet with Members of Congress from Illinois on June 24/25 regarding health care reform. HCAN is a nationwide effort representing some 30 million to bring about change in health care. Main Street Alliance represents small businesses countrywide, including 500 or so in Illinois.

Led by Illinois Campaign Director John Gaudette, we headed off to Washington, D.C. for what seemed to be a whirlwind of non-stop meetings on two hot summer's days with various Congressional leaders from Illinois, including our state's two United States Senators at an early morning "coffee" they hosted. Of course, all of our elected official's offices are spread throughout six House and Senate office buildings, which seemed like walking miles of hallways, as each building is a city block until itself (the three Senate buildings are on one side of the Capital and the three for House members on the other side). Then there was a cocktail reception in the evening of the first day for those who came to town to support healthcare reform, including having some small talk with Edie Falco, who I found out later was a lead performer in a very popular TV series (which I admit I had never watched).

But my walking took me to a rally in Upper Senate Park (next to the Russell Senate Office building) which, by some estimates, approached 10,000 persons who came from several states. It was organized under the auspices of HCAN and included folks from labor, unions, health care, lay persons and the like. There were many speakers, including the likes of Senators Schumer (NY), Menendez (NJ), Mel Martinez (Fla.), nurses and physicians, DNC's Howard Dean, labor and union leaders, and stories from ordinary folks throughout the U.S. who told their individual horror stories of having lost health care coverage or the inability to pay for it and then having had to face the consequences. But walking around and through the crowd gave me a sense of what all Americans, as if in microcosm, must be facing on a daily basis. What I experienced was a true grass-roots movement and heaven help any elected official who stands in its way. The train has left the station; the steam roller is moving onward. There was intense passion and determination in this crowd for real reform once and for all... regardless of station in life. I would venture to say that if another rally is held, thousands more will show up.

What was perhaps of equal interest is that within, say, 500 yards of this rally was an ornate, marbled corner conference room on the third floor of the Cannon Senate Office Building in which a couple of hours earlier and going on at the same time as the rally was a session of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ("H.E.L.P.") Subcommittee -- the one Teddy Kennedy heads but is unable to attend due to his own illness. This committee was marking up, i.e., making changes, discussing amendments, and providing technical corrections, to the draft of Kennedy's health care reform bill.

This is one of two bills that will come out of the Senate, the other from the Finance Committee headed by Senator Baucus. I attended a portion of the HELP Subcommittee meeting, which found at the outset speeches being given by some of its members, serving more for the cameras and their home state constituents perhaps than for any other reason. Members who spoke while I was there included Sens. Gregg, Dodd (acting chair) and Sanders. Others present at the time included Sens. Menendez, Casey, Mikulski, and Enzy. Senator Gregg, who supposedly has a handle on all matters financial, claimed that the HELP bill stands to fail because it is too costly and fails to satisfy what President Obama wants: coverage for all, allowing Americans to keep the coverage they have, and not bending the cost curve established by the Congressional Budget Office. He said that health care reform would leave $2.3 trillion in unfunded liabilities with 30 million citizens still being left without coverage. Dodd chimed in that at any one time 80-90 million are without coverage.

But during the time I sat in, it was Bernie Sanders who gave the most stirring and impassioned presentation as he sat around the four sided table at which all his colleagues on the subcommittee sat. He certainly did not pull any punches. Filled with statistics on how the insurance, health care, and pharmaceutical industries are filled with waste, inefficiencies and assertions of fraud (from lawsuits either that went to verdict or were settled), Sanders said that the U.S. doesn't have a health care system, and somehow his colleagues forget that the respected Institute of Medicine reports that 20,000 citizens die each year without access to a physician's care. Yet there are also 1300 private insurance companies in business to make a profit and not provide care and coverage to those millions who need it. Sanders made such an impact that Gregg felt compelled to offer a short reply, saying that he certainly does not wish to stand in the way of reforming our health care system, but its costs is what we should be most concerned. If only Kennedy was sitting at the table, what an inspiration his remarks would have made, particularly in light of the roadblocks Gregg seemed to be putting up.

The juxtaposition of this group of Senators with the public rally across a driveway from the Cannon building provided quite a juxtaposition -- Senators trying to put a handle on what to do knowing that the health care system is in crisis, yet those they were elected to serve attending a rally a short distance away, telling them to reform health care in a meaningful way, and that it must be done this year! The message from the constituents was clear: any reform must include a strong public health care option and the elimination of pre-existing conditions as a bar to coverage. It could not have been more emphasized that more choice means less cost! After all, competition for products and services is the sine qua non of American capitalism.

So, it is hard to figure out why opponents to a public option say that one more player in the health care marketplace will cause millions to lose coverage. If anything, the more competition the better it is for all consumers of health care. If the private market is as good as it says it is, consumers will continue to flock to the products it provides. If it is not because there is a better (cheaper) alternative, then either the private market will adjust to meet the better alternative, or fail. And, of course, if the new kid on the healthcare coverage market provides an inferior product, few Americans will purchase it. In either case, having a public option is a win-win for every person in our country. I guess if opponents to a great idea, like a public plan, can't debate it on the merits, the next best thing, politically speaking, is to pander to fear and anxiety of those who have no information on the subject by making up facts that do not exist -- like we are hearing now-a-days about how a public plan will cause millions of citizens to lose their insurance. To this I say, bunk!

Atop this blog, I spoke about how tired feet can, and will, reform healthcare. Indeed, at the end of our two days in Washington our group was tired, our feet were sore and achy, but we accomplished a lot -- a tribute to those who led out effort. But I suspect this was no different than other Americans who traveled to DC to attend the rally and to also meet with their elected representatives. But feet being worn out from all the walking on hot summer's days to convince elected officials to vote for real health care reform pails in comparison to not getting a health care reform bill that President Obama wants to sign in the fall of this year.