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NAVIGATION
PNHP RESOURCES

Single Payer Health Care Hearings Mobilize Progressive Members of Congress, Key Constituencies

Summary by Ellen Schaffer, Ph.D., MPH, with Ida Hellander, MD

As many of you know, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Universal Health Care Task Force, sponsored a hearing on universal, single payer, national health insurance from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on May 1, 2001. An impressive array of speakers and members of Congress appeared, and at the end, Representative Conyers (D-MI) declared it was "best hearing on health care ever held in the Congress."

You can view the entire hearing on the web at the Kaiser Family Foundation website. The listed url is: www.kaisernetwork.org/healthcast/uhcb/may01. Alternatively, go to www.kaisernetwork.org/. Click on "view healthcasts," then "calendar," then look at the May 1 listing and click on "Progressive Caucus Universal Health Care." A transcript is also on-line there.

What happened: Three notable trends

1. There is strong and committed leadership from active, progressive members of Congress for advancing health care reform in this session.

2. Support for comprehensive reform is broadening among communities of color, doctors, union members, patients, providers, and advocates.

3. There is growing recognition that market-based solutions are failing, but the battle lines are being drawn between the current administration, which is determined to further privatize Medicare and other public programs, and advocates of effective, single payer reform.

The progressive House leadership signaled their serious commitment to universal, comprehensive single payer health care reform, by their statements and by their presence throughout the day. Progressive Caucus chair, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH), vice-chair Rep. Barbara Lee (CA), and Rep. John Conyers (MI) engaged the participants for nearly five hours, and Rep. Donna Christensen (Virgin Islands), chair of the Black Caucus health committee, stayed for most of the proceedings. Twelve members of Congress attended, and many stayed for several hours, a truly significant turnout.

The three panels

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, led off the proceedings with a statement.

Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, presented a White Paper prepared by the Physicians' Working Group for Single-Payer National Health Insurance, a group organized by PNHP National Coordinator and APHA Past-President Dr. Quentin Young. The paper is available at the web site of Physicians for a National Health Program at www.pnhp.org under "News and Updates." Dr. Angell's clear and compelling presentation that universal single payer national health insurance is both imperative and affordable received a standing ovation from the members and the audience.

In addition to Dr. Angell, members of the Physicians Working Group for Single-Payer National Health Insurance come from a wide array of physician organizations and backgrounds: Dr. Rodney Hood, the President of the National Medical Association which represents African-American physicians; Dr. Elinor Christiansen, the President of the American Medical Women's Association; Dr. Merlin DuVal, President Nixon's Assistant Secretary for Health; Drs. Christine Cassel and Gerald Thompson, Past Presidents of the American College of Physicians; Dr. Sindhu Srinivas, President of the American Medical Student Association; APHA Past President Dr. Quentin Young, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Walter Tsou, APHA Past-President, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, the Economic Policy Institute's Dr. Edith Rasell, Dr. Olveen Carasquillo, Universal Health Care Task Force of the National Hispanic Medical Association, Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore City Health Commissioner, and PNHP co-founders Drs. David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler.

During the second panel, members of Congress spoke about their own legislative proposals.

Reps. Kucinich and Conyers announced their intentions to work together to draft a new bill for single payer national health insurance.

Rep. Barbara Lee spoke eloquently about HR 3000, the U.S. Universal Health Service Act, which she will re-introduce, and its importance both for public health and for redressing health care inequalities.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (IL) made an impassioned presentation about his proposed resolution to make health care a constitutional right.

Other speakers included Reps. Ciro Rodriguez (TX), Tammy Baldwin (WI), John Tierney (MA), and Pete Stark, Hilda Solis, and Bob Filner (all CA).

The third panel included other supporters of universal health care, who presented their personal experiences as health care providers, patients, and analysts to dramatize the need for universal health care.

Ellen Shaffer, a founding member of the APHA Working Group on Universal Health Care, discussed the importance of a publicly accountable and public financed universal system to provide access and coordinated, high quality care for immigrant workers in California, women with breast cancer, and high-risk infants. APHA members Donald Light, Claudia Morrissey, Nancy Milio, Mary Villedrouin, Thelma Correll, Carmen Nevarez, Karyn Pomerantz, Mark Hannay, and Susan Reverby, and Barbara Brenner, contributed to her statement.

Other providers and patients represented the American Psychological Association, the Service Employees International Union, the Black Nurses Association, the League of Women Voters, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the Black Health Care Brain Trust, people with sickle cell anemia and cancer. A doctor protested the recent closing of DC General Hospital. Frank Clemente of Public Citizen's Congress Watch presented a critique of the Breaux-Frist proposal to privatize Medicare.

The audience for the hearings were as impressive as the panelists, including among others: Bob Griss, Executive Director, Center on Disability and Health, and APHA Executive Director Mohammed Akhter; Kevin Lindamood of Health Care for the Homeless; Gail Shearer of Consumers Union; Madeleine Gold of SEIU; and many Congressional staff, including Cathy Hurwit, staff for Rep.Jan Schakowsky, and staff for Sen. Paul Wellstone. The hearing room was packed and enthusiastic.

Significance of the event

PNHP National Coordinator Dr. Quentin Young's extraordinary energy and vision, combined with excellent staffing by PNHP assistant Jackie Le, brought together a wide-ranging group of doctors in support of a single payer health care system, and gave our champions in Congress like Reps. Kucinich, Lee, Conyers and Christensen a platform for action on single payer national health insurance, which was endorsed before the hearing by both the Progressive and Black Caucuses. This diversity was reflected in the participation of the Black and Hispanic Caucuses, and the range of advocates for reform who spoke at and attended the hearing.

It was remarkable that these members of Congress devoted almost five hours on a working day to listening to moving and effective testimony. Thanks to Congressional staff Joel Segal, Allison Friedrich, and Danielle LeClair for their dedication to this project.

As the discussion on the Breaux-Frist Medicare proposal reminded all of us, our vision is not driving national policy, and in fact supporters of the failing market approach are pushing hard and fast to undermine public programs in the U.S. and to export privatization abroad. It is more critical than ever to show our support for those courageous and visionary members of Congress who are standing up to lead the way, by mobilizing our organizations, and encouraging our representatives to co-sponsor progressive legislation, including the upcoming new Conyer's bill for single payer national health insurance and to join the Universal Health Care Task Force.