Groups strategize for single-payer plan
President Barack Obama and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) rarely pass up a chance to snub single-payer health care — a term that means a government-run system. So opponents on the left who want their voices heard in the debate over health care reform are planning to yell a little bit louder as Congress considers creating a public insurance plan to compete with private insurers.
Their strategy is simple: By pushing hard for single-payer health care, a robust public insurance option ends up looking like a compromise Democrats could accept.
“The best way to get half the pie is ask for the whole pie,” said Katie Robbins, assistant national coordinator of Healthcare-Now, which will not endorse the public plan but acknowledges the strategy. “It is like horse trading.”
Healthcare-Now doesn’t have a seat at the White House negotiating table with other interest groups, including its chief nemesis, the insurance industry. So single-payer advocates have resolved to make their cause hard to ignore. Advocates say that by making the government the sole administrator of health care, the U.S. could save billions of dollars annually on reduced administrative costs.
Single-payer groups earned headlines in March by accusing the White House of excluding them from the first health care forum, and they eventually won seats. Last week, two of those groups — the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee — launched a Web ad campaign costing in the “low six figures,” targeting the five Democratic committee chairmen writing the health care legislation. On May 13, single-payer advocates will rally at the Capitol.
Other supporters also are raising their voices. This month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described socialist, introduced the first Senate bill in years calling for a single-payer health care system. And the 77-member Congressional Progressive Caucus made its demands clear in a letter sent this month to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“It will come as no surprise, as you work to craft comprehensive health care reform legislation, that we urge the inclusion of a public plan option, at a minimum, in the final legislation,” the letter stated. Otherwise, a “strong majority” of the caucus will oppose the bill, the letter added.
“It’s a complicated situation. We have never been stronger than we are now,” said Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program. But still, the $2 trillion health care industry is stronger, he said.
“We shouldn’t have any illusion — we had two people in a room of 150 euphemistically described as ‘stakeholders,’” Young said of the White House health care forum. “The fix is in.”
A $1 million ad buy Tuesday by Conservatives for Patient Rights underscores the political peril of single-payer health care. The group uses stories about bureaucracy and wait lists in Canada and Britain to tap into fears about America moving in a similar direction under the Democratic health care plan — a notion that supporters dispute.
Health reform is what you make it
Public opinion on health care reform may be as pliable as Play-Doh, the latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found. And that means a tough fight ahead for advocates on both sides of the issue to define the bill before the other does.
Consider a series of questions on creating a government-run insurance program: Sixty-seven percent said they favored “a public health insurance option similar to Medicare to compete with private insurance plans,” while 29 percent opposed it.
When told the public option would lead to a government-run health care system, 41 percent said they still favored it. But when proponents were then told the public option would give government an unfair advantage over the private market, support for the idea dropped to 32 percent.
And here is a hint about why proponents and opponents of the public plan talk so frequently about “choice”: It polls really, really well.
Support for the public plan jumped to 78 percent when people were told it would give consumers more options.
“Opinion is movable and malleable, and a lot will depend on leadership, on how issues are framed and the intensity of the debate and how long it will last,” said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
For instance, last week, former Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt emerged from private life to take issue with those who are using the words “choice” and “competition” to push for the public insurance option. He argued in a column posted on AmericaSpeakOn.org that the public plan would do the opposite, crowding out private insurers and robbing consumers of choice.
“I’m not exercising my voice extensively, but I do intend to write more and I do intend to do more speaking,” said Leavitt, who was HHS secretary from 2005 to 2009 and has been holding weekly calls with Republicans on the Hill about health care policy and strategy.
Bottom line: The real battle over public opinion has yet to begin.
Three things to watch for this week in the health care debate:
• The vote margin and tone of the debate on Health and Human Services nominee Kathleen Sebelius. After Republican delays — described in a Democratic Senate office e-mail as “just short of the amount of slow-walking that would be blatantly obvious” — the Senate will take up the nomination Tuesday.
• Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, convenes the committee’s first “walk-through” with members Wednesday to begin settling on details of a health care reform bill. He is expected to speak with reporters after the private meeting.
• The administration’s handling of the swine flu outbreak. The Service Employees International Union became the first group to point fingers at the absence of key appointees at HHS, launching an online petition this weekend arguing that Republicans are depriving the department of leadership as it confronts the potential pandemic.