Liberal Groups Seek Single-Payer Health Care Bill

by Lesley Politi on February 5, 2009

Liberal Groups Seek Single-Payer Health Care Bill


A coalition of liberal advocacy groups and labor unions is trying to breathe new life into the idea of a European-style “single-payer” health system in the United States, a concept thought discredited after the collapse of President Bill Clinton’s attempt at overhauling the health care system.

The groups announced Wednesday the launch of a lobbying campaign to build support for a health care overhaul that would expand Medicare, the health entitlement for the elderly, to cover everyone and act as the “single payer,” putting health insurance companies out of business.

After a conference call with reporters to outline their plans, the groups held a briefing for about 45 Democratic congressional aides to discuss “Medicare-for-all” legislation and research that predicts economic benefits from a nationwide expansion.

“We cannot rely on private health insurance any longer because of its waste and its greed,” said Dr. Robert Zarr, co-chairman of the Washington chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Several senior Democrats, led by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, have long supported a single-payer system. Rep. John D. Dingell , D-Mich., introduces a bill in every Congress that would expand Medicare to cover all Americans. But the proposals have never been seriously debated, not even after Democrats reclaimed Congress in 2006.

Since the failure of Clinton’s 1994 plan — which was enormously more complex than simply expanding Medicare — the idea has been considered a dead end. Many Democrats have concluded that any serious health overhaul must involve private insurers, a powerful lobby in Washington that was instrumental in defeating Clinton’s plan. President Obama, who made overhauling health care a major piece of his campaign, has said that any changes should allow people who have private insurance to keep their coverage if they choose.

“There have been numerous studies that have been done which show the American people prefer a private-public approach to health care reform,” said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents the industry. “All the proposals that are getting serious consideration on Capitol Hill include a public-private approach to health care reform.”

The new coalition, which calls itself the Leadership Conference for Guaranteed Health Care, thinks “Medicare for all” should get its own consideration. It is backing legislation Conyers introduced in the 110th Congress that would expand Medicare to everyone and would prohibit private insurance companies from competing with the program. Groups in the coalition claim to represent more than 20 million people, including many doctors and nurses.

A $63 Billion Question

Members of the coalition presented results of a study by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, a labor union, that predicts that expanding Medicare to cover everyone would lead to 2.6 million new jobs, $317 billion in new business and public revenue, and $44 billion in new tax revenue. The expansion would cost $63 billion a year, on top of the more than $2 trillion the United States already spends on health care.

While acknowledging that any expansion of insurance for the estimated 46 million uninsured would have some economic benefits, Charles Idelson, communications director for the nurses’ union, said the key driver for jobs and economic growth is for them to actually get health care.

“If all you’re doing is requiring people to buy insurance,” he said, “that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily go out and buy it and get the care.”

The coalition’s spokespeople would not say during the conference call that they would oppose other Democratic plans, such as Obama’s plan or expected legislation by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus , D-Mont. Donna Smith, a Washington-based community organizer for the nurses union, said the coalition is realistic.

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