Respect Americans' Choice on Health Care Options -- Howard Dean

07/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Probably the top priorities at "America's Future Now" conference (formerly Take Back America) is getting universal health care adopted this year.

Progressive groups announced plans to spend $82 million to press for adoption of Obama's health care plan. The coalition, made up of, Americans United for Change, USAction, Campaign for Community Change, Rock the Vote, AFL-CIO, SEIU, the Children's Defense Fund, and others, together represent 30 million Americans.

Making sure the "public option" is contained in health care legislation is a top priority of the coalition. Likewise for the congressional Progressive Caucus and the Black, Hispanic, and Asia Pacific American caucuses, which recently sent joint letters to President Obama and House and Senate leadership emphasizing that they would only support health care reform if it contains the public option.

The public option allows Americans to choose between private insurance and a public plan. (I wrote about the public option here.)

The momentum is strong -- in June, there will be petitions, lobby days in Congress, and the beginnings of a grassroots and eventually an advertising campaign.

The public option is not enough to satisfy single-payer advocates. But if Congress can withstand intense pressure from the private health care industry -- which doesn't want to have to compete with a more efficient public plan -- and if Congress can refrain from watering it down, it does represent an enormous step toward universal, quality health coverage.

This approach may be a good way to go. But that is no reason for Senator Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Barack Obama to exclude single-payer health care advocates from the summits, forums, and hearings on health care reform. Even the "America's Future Now" conference had no speakers advocating for single-payer health care.

At a press conference today, I got a chance to ask Howard Dean why single-payer advocates are not at the table. Here's his responses, followed by what I think (but did not say):

Dr. Dean: We really weren't anticipating that question...

Me: Really? Everywhere there is a public forum on health care, people are shouting from the audience about single-payer since they are almost never included on the official panels.

Dr. Dean: They should be at the table.
The Right has managed to turn "single-payer" into a bad word, like "liberal."

Me: All the more reason to insist on considering the policy on its merits, not based on a foregone conclusion about what is politically plausible. After all, if you have the insurance and medical-industrial complex pushing for no public plan, wouldn't you want the single-payer movement pushing from the other side? Then the Obama plan can take its place as a centrist policy, which is what it is.

Dr. Dean: Opponents have used confusion to sow doubt. People may not like the health care system, but they like their doctor or hospital.

Me: In other words, we need to keep everyone on message. Not sure I buy that when public opinion polls show a majority of Americans favoring single-payer health care -- even if they have to pay higher taxes. That's extraordinary support for a proposal with few public figures advocating it and a virtual media blackout on the topic.

In his opening remarks, Robert Borosage of Campaign for America's Future, said: "We need to build independent movements, organizing outside of Washington, demanding real change." Let's start by including members of the movement for single-payer health care in the dialogue.

Dr. Dean: President Obama's plan is realistic. Even in Britain, where medicine really is socialized [doctors offices and hospitals are publicly owned] 15% of health care dollars go to private insurance. Private insurance isn't going away. Americans should be the ones to choose. If they like their current, private insurance, they can keep it. If they aren't satisfied, they should be able to choose a public plan. Respect Americans' ability to decide.

Me: Respect for Americans' ability to decide. Just what the doctor ordered.