Health reform opponents resist universal coverage

The health care fight is taking shape outside the Washington beltway as lawmakers return to their home districts for August recess. Democratic lawmakers have been putting together comprehensive bills to reform the broken system in the face of Republican and insurance industry opposition, and from nervous conservatives in the Democratic Party, known as “Blue Dogs.”

'We know what we're up against,' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Friday. 'Carpet-bombing, slash and burn, shock and awe – anything you want to say to describe what the insurance companies will do to hold on to their special advantage.'

People, who could be called storm-troopers for Big Insurance, disrupted a town hall meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter in Philadelphia, Pa., Aug. 2. Although their numbers were only a quarter of the audience, they managed to grab the headlines.

Marc Stier, the Pennsylvania organizer for Health Care Action Now (HCAN), was at the Aug. 2 event. Stier said the audience gave Sebelius and Specter a standing ovation but the “right-wingers” were “aggressive and rude.”

These “right wing groups vastly amplify their small numbers by making a ruckus,” he said.

And you know what their message was? Stier asked. “They don’t want more people to get health insurance because they say there will be more lines for those who have it. This is where they are coming from.”

Such a mindset is “totally misguided,” he said.

Stier became passionate, HCAN “has built the biggest issue campaign in Pennsylvania history” with 20,000 health care activists on their rolls. “We have three-four events everyday” across the state. “People know there is a crisis and things cannot stay the same.”

But a few “lunatics” come to one event and the media makes it sound like there is huge opposition to reform. That’s just not the case, Stier said.

One bill has cleared three committees in the House, HR 3200. The Senate version is currently tied up in the finance committee run by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.

HR 3200 was held up in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by progressive Rep. Henry Waxman of California, but whose members are mostly Blue Dogs. A compromise was reached and the bill cleared the committee Friday evening, July 31 by a 31-28 vote, clearing the way for its consideration on the House floor in September.

House members are going to be hearing from the constituents during the August recess.

Health care reform activists, including HCAN, MoveOn.org, and labor unions, are already gearing up for an August fight.

In West Virginia, more than 500 people gathered in Charleston for a labor rally Aug. 2 demanding better health care for all Americans. Linking the health care fight to the economy, Kenny Perdue, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said “people are filing bankruptcy at an alarming rate.'

He along with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka vowed to push labor’s agenda – including health care reform – forcefully. Labor backs the president’s three principles: lowering cost; guaranteeing choice, including a public option choice and universal coverage. Unions oppose taxing health care benefits and favor the surcharge on millionaires to help pay for the reform plan.

'It is our time to run this country and to make it better than it ever was before. We're going to make changes. It is our time,' Perdue said.

HCAN is also gearing up for the fight. With organizers in 44 states, HCAN plans to “bird dog” elected officials, hold town halls, canvass and run advertisements. They are planning to target “opponents of reform,” which include insurance industry, members of Congress and right-wing activists, according to HCAN spokesperson Jacki Schechner.

HCAN is happy with the HR 3200 bill and both Schechner and Stier said they are confident that there will be a “strong public option” coming out of the House bill.

“We are very happy with HR 3200,” Schechner said.

However 60 members of the House Progressive Caucus signed a letter July 31 voicing their opposition to “the negotiated health care reform agreement under consideration in the Energy and Commerce Committee.” It’s not clear whether those agreements wound up in the bill that the committee cleared or if those 60 members would vote against HR 3200. Calls were placed to several members of Congress including Reps. John Conyers, Grijalva and Hare. An aide to Conyers said he was in a meeting at the White House. But no one would say whether the 60 would vote against the House bill.

All of this underscores the fluidity of the legislative process where agreements can be made and then stripped out before a final vote.

Now the ground game – the grassroots mobilization – is critical in these next four weeks, activists say. The Democratic leadership has provided its members with “talking points” for HR 3200, America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, with facts and figures of how the bill will help each district’s residents, including for small business, uninsured and seniors on Medicare.

To read the district by district info click here