Friday, July 17, 2009

Conyers Rallies Activists for Single-Payer Health Care

Veteran Congressmember Speaks at World Beat Center July 12


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When African-American John Conyers, Jr. became the Congressional representative for Michigan’s First District (now the 14th District) in 1965, Barack Obama was three years old — a fact Conyers reminded his audience of when he spoke at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park, San Diego, July 12 as part of a nationwide tour to build support for single-payer health care. Though Congress has so far refused even to consider single-payer — which would replace the private health-insurance industry with a government-administered and –financed plan similar to Medicare — and has instead obsessively debated whether to allow a so-called “public option” to exist alongside the current system — Conyers thinks health-care reform needs to go beyond that, and he’s speaking across the country to get citizen activists to demand it.

“All of us in elected office are politicians,” Conyers said. “I don’t consider that derogatory. Politicians must be pushed. They are influenced by pressure.” As for Obama, while Conyers recalled his pride at seeing the first African-American President inaugurated last January, he said that Obama “hasn’t gotten it right on health care. Something is missing. The proposals that are being debated by three committees in the House and two in the Senate are not what we’re talking about. If Obama didn’t know any better, we’d say we’d have to get past his advisors. But Obama knows better. He came from the South Side of Chicago and he supported single-payer [in the 1990’s], so somebody help me out here.”

Conyers, who’s been pushing a single-payer bill for years and getting nowhere with it — the current version is numbered HR 676 — especially faulted Obama for reaching out not to ordinary people, but to health industry lobbyists for help in formulating his proposals. “I like the idea of reaching out, but we’re playing hardball,” Conyers said. “This isn’t about being diplomatic or how pretty your sponsors will be. We want action, and we [single-payer advocates] are being pushed into a corner, not even noticed, not even part of the debate. … There is no other plan that matches ours or has more supporters — 84 co-sponsors in the House. This is not something about which we can play around.”

According to Conyers, at least part of the problem is that many people who need health-care coverage have too-low expectations of what they deserve or what the political system could provide if it had the will to do so. “I hear people say, ‘I want health care for my children, not myself,’ and I say, ‘Get off the stage,’” Conyers said. “If I haven’t got it for myself, why would I fight to get it for my kids? I want universal health care for everyone in the country. Is there something selfish about that?”

The reason he’s stuck himself out on a limb with what the Congressional mainstream — Democrats as well as Republicans — consider a dangerously radical proposal on health care, Conyers said, is because he believes single-payer will literally save lives as well as money. “We’re talking about helping people live longer,” he said. “At one of these meetings, a woman asked me, ‘What about the cost? I pay taxes!’ The beauty of single-payer is that if you deal fairly with everybody and eliminate the profit motive from the health-care system, you’ll save money.”

Conyers cited Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), one of the groups sponsoring his San Diego appearance, as an example of the kind of grass-roots organizing he feels needs to be done on this issue. “We need more activists — not only on 676 but everything the government does in a democracy,” Conyers said. “What do we have to do? We have to hold conversations with our members of Congress, including the Senators. I am writing a book on the care and feeding for members of Congress.” Conyers stressed the importance of being polite and knowing what you’re doing, so you can get a meeting with your representative him- or herself instead of “talking to an intern — and sometimes they’ll be very nasty.”

According to Conyers, the activists’ ambitions shouldn’t stop with the House of Representatives. “What about the U.S. Senate?” he asked. “One hundred people who roll along every six years. They’re really busy. They have a whole state to represent. This is where it tests our individual wills. You’ve got to figure out what it takes. You’ve got to get into their offices 150 strong, not to threaten or intimidate, but just to demand an honest, democratic discussion on single-payer, and we want them to hear what we have to say.” Conyers also said he’s going to seek a personal meeting with President Obama and wants “a few of the doctors [who are supporting single-payer] to come with me and explain the technical aspects of it.”

Conyers’ HR 676 is formally titled “United States National Health Care Act or the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act.” It says, “All individuals residing in the United States (including any territory of the United States) are covered under the USNHC [United States National Health Care] Program entitling them to a universal, best quality standard of care. … Individuals who present themselves for covered services from a participating provider shall be presumed to be eligible for benefits under this Act, but shall complete an application for benefits in order to receive a United States National Health Insurance Card and have payment made for such benefits.”

The bill would guarantee coverage for “(1) Primary care and prevention. (2) Inpatient care. (3) Outpatient care. (4) Emergency care. (5) Prescription drugs. (6) Durable medical equipment. (7) Long-term care. (8) Palliative care. (9) Mental health services. (10) The full scope of dental services (other than cosmetic dentistry). (11) Substance abuse treatment services. (12) Chiropractic services. (13) Basic vision care and vision correction (other than laser vision correction for cosmetic purposes). (14) Hearing services, including coverage of hearing aids. (15) Podiatric care.” Other services could be added by the “National Board of Universal Quality and Access” which would be set up under the bill to administer the program.

One aspect of Conyers’ bill indicates that when he says he wants to take the profit motive out of health care altogether, he means exactly that. Single-payer proponents often say they don’t want to change the way health care is delivered — merely the way it’s paid for — and stress that they’re not trying to set up anything like Britain’s National Health Service, in which the government puts doctors and other health professionals on salary actually to provide care. But HR 676 would allow private doctors, hospitals, clinics and health maintenance organizations (HMO’s) to participate in the national health system only if they reorganized as sole-proprietor businesses or non-profit corporations.

“For-profit providers of care opting to participate shall be required to convert to not-for-profit status,” the bill provides in Section 103. “For-profit providers of care that convert to non-profit status shall remain privately owned and operated entities. The owners of such for-profit providers shall be compensated for reasonable financial losses incurred as a result of the conversion from for-profit to non-profit status. … The Secretary [of Health and Human Services] shall promulgate a rule to provide a mechanism to further the timely, efficient, and feasible conversion of for-profit providers of care.”

“The industry has always tried to make Americans think that government-run systems are the worst thing that could possibly happen to them, that if you even consider that, you’re heading down on the slippery slope towards socialism,” said Wendell Potter, former public relations director for the Cigna health insurance company, in an interview on the July 10 episode of the PBS-TV show Bill Moyers’ Journal. “So they have used scare tactics for years and years and years, to keep that from happening. If there were a broader program like our Medicare program, it could potentially reduce the profits of these big companies. So that is their biggest concern.”

The fear campaign has already started, not only to keep the door nailed shut on single-payer but to eliminate altogether any public alternative to private health insurance in whatever health care reform bill ultimately emerges from Congress. “They are trying to make you worry and fear a government bureaucrat being between you and your doctor,” Potter told Moyers. “What you have now is a corporate bureaucrat between you and your doctor.” Not only does the current system routinely put private bureaucrats between patients and doctors, it makes them the ultimate arbiters of who gets what care and how quickly. And sometimes people die as a result.

Potter told Moyers about his involvement in the case of Nataline Sarkisyan, a 19-year-old who died as a result of Cigna’s decision to deny her health-care claim. “Nataline Sarkisyan’s doctors at UCLA had recommended that she have a liver transplant,” Potter recalled. “But when the coverage request was reviewed at Cigna, the decision was made to deny it. The family had gone to the media, had sought out help from the California Nurses’ Association and some others to really bring pressure to bear on Cigna. And they were very successful in getting a lot of media attention, and nothing like I had ever seen before. It got everyone’s attention. Everyone was focused on that in the corporate offices.” The public pressure eventually turned Cigna around, and they approved payment for Sarkisyan’s liver transplant — only she died just two hours after the company decided to pay after all.

“What we have today, Mr. Chairman, is Wall Street-run health care that has proven itself an untrustworthy partner to its customers, to the doctors and hospitals who deliver care and to the state and federal governments that attempt to regulate it,” Wendell Potter said when he had a chance to testify before Congress on health care. In his Bill Moyers’ Journal interview, Potter described how he rose through the ranks at Cigna — which owns or operates up to 70 percent of all employer-based health insurance plans in the U.S. — in an almost Marie Antoinette-like obliviousness about the average American’s difficulty in accessing health care until he went to a health fair in Wise Country, West Virginia, a few miles from his boyhood home in Tennessee.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Potter told Moyers. “I just assumed that it would be booths set up and people just getting their blood pressure checked and things like that. But what I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they’d erected tents, to care for people. I mean, there was no privacy. I’ve got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement. I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care. People drove from South Carolina and Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee — all over the region, because they knew that this was being done. A lot of them heard about it from word of mouth. There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up at the house down the road, in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.”

Like a Cinderella in reverse, Potter returned from that West Virginia health fair to his “normal” life as a high-paid P.R. man for the private health insurance industry. “I would often fly on a corporate aircraft to go to meetings,” Potter recalled. “And I just thought that was a great way to travel. It is a great way to travel. You’re sitting in a luxurious corporate jet, leather seats, very spacious. I was served my lunch by a flight attendant who brought my lunch on a gold-rimmed plate. And she handed me gold-plated silverware to eat it with. And then I remembered the people that I had seen in Wise County. Undoubtedly, they had no idea that this went on, at the corporate levels of health insurance companies.”

Also on the program at the World Beat Center July 12 was Mike Sievers, former member of Conyers’ Congressional staff and now working privately with him on the campaign for single-payer. “I don’t know too many House committee chairs who organize a movement,” Sievers said. “It’s now or never. There will be a bill that’s supposed to be a universal health care bill. Single-payer may be ‘off the table’ before the Congressional health care committees, but not with the Congress as a whole or the American people. There are families here in San Diego that have members that are sick and can’t go to a doctor. One of Conyers’ ideas is to do national health care town-hall meetings. The PDA’s in San Diego and Los Angeles hooked up to do a town-hall with Congressmembers Maxine Waters and Diane Watson and invite people to speak on what they think the health-care system should be. We used to say in the 1960’s that ‘the revolution will not be televised. Well, this revolution does need to be televised.”

For more information on Congressmember Conyers’ campaign for universal single-payer health care, visit