CHICAGO - Hundreds of union members, business owners, sick people denied benefits by their insurance companies, their families and activists braved snow squalls and icy winds blowing in from Lake Michigan last night.
They did it to pull off a rally here on the eve of President Obama's White House Health Care Summit and they reinforced a message that even the coldest Republican hearts in the nation's capital heard when the Congress voted 406-19 to repeal the antitrust exemption enjoyed by the health insurance giants.
Before hundreds of rallies like the one here last night, more than 1,250,000 people from coast to coast sent messages to Congress urging lawmakers to "finish the job and pass real health care reform." The "virtual march" continues today with hundreds of thousands of callers tying up phone lines, fax machines and computers in the nation's capital.
Steve Hart, whose partner Melanie Shouse recently lost her battle with breast cancer after her insurance company denied her care, addressed the crowd here via telephone conference line.
In a voice that betrayed his choked back tears the hushed crowd at the Chicago Temple heard him say, "Melanie would have been alive and well today if we had a health care system that worked. She would have gone to the doctor at the first sign of a lump in her breast."
Hart had just walked 135 miles from Philadelphia to DC with other "survivors of the U.S. health care system," as the group called itself.
The rally here, sponsored by Health Care for America Now, the Illinois Main Street Alliance, Citizen Action Illinois and MoveOn.Org, was addressed by Rep. Jan Schakowski, D-Ill., who praised the president's bill for curbing insurance rate hikes.
"Illinois is one of 26 states that allow insurance companies to charge whatever premiums they want without review. The bill would give us the authority to prevent those rate hikes," she said.
Speakers at the rally recognized that the president's proposal does not include stronger reforms advocated by many progressives.
"I am not here tonight to convince you the bill is good, far from it," said Andy Kurz, a former official at Blue Cross Wisconsin who switched sides to become a health care reform advocate. "I am here to say that this bill is necessary, and in context, as transformational as Medicare was in 1965. The opposition bellyached about Medicare then, and is doing the same now. But would you chuck Medicare? Me neither," he said, as the audience rose to its feet with chants of "no."
The Rev. Larry Greenfield, a Baptist minister who attributed hundreds of thousands of deaths in the last ten years to a "terrorist attack on our people by health insurance profiteers and their partners in Congress," said the fight to improve the bill must continue, even after it is passed.
He and other speakers said Congress should immediately add a strong public health insurance option and move up the start dates of important provisions to 2010. Other speakers called for national, rather than state-based health insurance exchanges.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a leading proponent of health care reform, said in Washington yesterday, that he was "not certain we're going to be able to get a public option in this bill but that doesn't mean we stop trying. I keep reminding people that this bill is not written in stone, like the Ten Commandments, for ever and ever."
Popular pressure is having its effect in Washington with Democrats saying openly that they are ready to move on health care reform without Republican support. They say they are ready to use Senate budget rules to pass a bill with a simple majority.
Sixteen of such 22 "reconciliation bills" that have made it through Congress were passed in the Senate when it had Republican majorities. These included the tax cuts for the rich pushed by President Bush, the 1996 overhaul of welfare, the Children's Health Insurance program, Medicare Advantage and the COBRA program.
Another result of the big health care reform campaigns is the shift in public positions taken by some conservative Democrats who are coming out more boldly now in support of the president's bill. Many expressed outrage over a 39 percent rate hike by WellPoint Inc.
WellPoint, in testimony before Congress yesterday, blamed its rate increase on doctors, hospitals, drug companies, suppliers and patients, particularly seniors. House members, citing internal documents from WellPoint, said the company had sought to inflate individual policyholders' premiums to counteract anticipated concessions to state regulators.