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Sen. Bernie Sanders on his amendment for single payer

By DANIEL BARLOW, Vermont Press Bureau
Times Argus (Barre, Vt.), Dec. 17, 2009

MONTPELIER – U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders was expecting to make history Wednesday.

Instead, his amendment to create a single-payer health care system was used as a tool by Senate Republicans to create gridlock in the chamber as they sought to derail the health care reform plans of Democrats and President Barack Obama.

"That is an outrage," said the Vermont independent on the floor of the Senate Wednesday afternoon. "People can have honest disagreements, but in this moment of crisis it is wrong to bring the United States government to a halt."

Sanders' proposal wasn't going to garner many votes on the Senate floor, but it would have been the first time that a single-payer health care system was debated and voted on by Congress. Single-payer supporters saw that as a positive step forward.

But when Sanders introduced his amendment, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, asked that it be read in its entirety before a vote, an unusual move given that the readings of most proposals are waived as a courtesy and for the sake of time.

Sanders' amendment is 767 pages long. After 20 minutes, a Senate clerk got through reading the table of contents. Three hours later, a reluctant Sanders withdrew his amendment.

And then he unloaded on his Republican colleagues in the Senate.

"Everybody in this country understands that our nation faces a significant number of major crises, whether it is the disintegration of our health care system, the fact that 17 percent of our people are unemployed or underemployed, one out of four of our children are living on food stamps, we've got two wars, we've got global warming, we have a $12 trillion national debt," Sanders said.

"And the best the Republicans can do is try to bring the United States government to a halt by forcing a reading of a 700-page amendment," he concluded.

Sanders' amendment to the health care reform bill would have created a single-payer system by allowing all Americans – regardless of age – to be covered by Medicare. [PNHP note: original version erroneously reported everyone could buy into Medicare.] The system would be funded federally through payroll and incomes taxes, but administered on a state level.

"This amendment starts from the premise that health care is a human right and that every citizen, rich or poor, should have access to health care, just as every citizen has access to the fire department, the police or public schools," Sanders said.

Republicans defended the gridlock created by forcing a reading of the bill.

"I admire Sen. Sanders for his willingness to fight for publicly what many advocate only privately – a single payer health care system funded and controlled by bureaucrats and politicians in Washington," Coburn said in a statement. "Every American should listen to the reading of this amendment and pay careful attention to its vote tally."

In a phone interview after the debate, Sanders said he was "very disappointed" in the Republican leadership for effectively blocking a vote on a single-payer system. He said it is part of a pattern for the party to obstruct and delay in order to take down President Obama.

"They don't want to do anything about health care and they don't want to do anything about the economy because they want to point to President Obama as a failure," Sanders said. "This is no secret. This is the goal of the Republican Party right now."

Sanders said a request from Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, convinced him to pull the amendment from consideration. Reading the whole bill would have taken 10-15 hours, Sanders said, and a pressing vote on the new defense budget was scheduled for later that evening.

"I've been told that if there are more amendments to be considered, mine is at the top of the list," Sanders said, adding that his single-payer plan still exists as a separate bill introduced earlier this year.

Forcing the reading of the single-payer amendment was just the latest attempt by Republicans "to suppress any debate on health care reform," said Dr. Quentin Young, the national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program, a Chicago-based organization representing 17,000 medical professionals.

"This was a cynical and obvious move," said Young, who described the country's health care system as deteriorating.

Young didn't hold Democrats free of criticism either, however. He said the bill considered by the Senate – which has been stripped of the public health insurance option and the Medicare expansion – is "a giant step backwards." He said Sanders should vote against the bill.

"The President's role in this has been shameful," said Young, who was Obama's friend and neighbor during the President's early days as a politician in Chicago. "He's backed off all of his campaign promises while caving into the insurance industry."

Sanders said Wednesday that he has not decided yet how to vote on the bill, which now lacks many of the proposals he saw as vital to reform.

"The loss of the public option and the Medicare buy-in were serious blows," Sanders said. "But, no, I haven't made up my mind."

Sanders' Vermont colleague, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement that opponents of health care reform have "thrown around all manner of distortions about Canada's single-payer system."

"With his amendment, Sen. Sanders has helped inject some balance into the debate," Leahy said. "Sen. Coburn may have intended to further obstruct and distort, but his stalling tactics actually have given the Sanders amendment a brighter spotlight."

While on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sanders struck an optimistic tone, saying it is only a matter of time before the United States joins the rest of the major industrialized nations in the world by creating a single-payer health care system.

"The day will come when the country will do the right thing," Sanders said.

daniel.barlow@timesargus.com

http://www.timesargus.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091217/NEWS01/912170342/