Keep on Keeping on with Universal Healthcare

by Dick Price on May 13, 2009

Tempering the universal healthcare movement’s idealism with calls for pragmatic approaches, retired State Senator Sheila Kuehl preached persistence at last Saturday’s “Single Payer Solution” conference. “Our job is to convince California person by person, church by synagogue, worker by workplace by employer, that single payer is the right answer,” she told the packed sanctuary at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.

Organized by the San Gabriel Valley Chapter of Health Care for All, the all-day conference drew several hundred healthcare activists and interested onlookers—many more than its organizers anticipated–to hear Kuehl and talks by Sara Rogers, Kuehl’s former health policy advisor who now works in a similar capacity for State Senator Mark Leno, and Elizabeth Sholes, Director of Public Policy for the California Council of Churches. Breakout sessions looked at ways to overcome objections and build support for single-payer healthcare in California and nationally.

But the highlight clearly was Senator Kuehl, who championed SB 840, the California Healthcare Act, during her years in the California State Senate, twice bringing it to Governor Swartenegger’s desk, where it was twice vetoed. Mixing charm from her childhood acting career with a lawyer’s and legislator’s engaging presentation, Kuehl argued for pressing ahead for California’s single payer plan—SB 810, Mark Leno’s new bill—while also supporting more moderate advances now discussed at the national level.

“No single payer advocate was invited to the national debate on healthcare,” she acknowledged. But if universal healthcare advocates insist on an all- or-nothing approach right now: “In that case, it will be nothing,” she said.

What’s at Stake

A national single-payer healthcare system would create 2.6 million new jobs, while infusing $317 billion in new business and public revenues and another $100 billion in wages, according to a study commissioned by the National Nurses Organizing Committee and the California Nurses Association.

“These dramatic new findings document for the first time that a single-payer system would not only solve our healthcare crisis, but also substantially contribute to putting America back to work and assisting the economic recovery,” said Geri Jenkins, co-president of the organizations that commissioned the study.

“We’re the only developed country in the world that’s willing to barter human lives for money,” Jenkins said during her breakout session on the economic ramifications of universal healthcare reform.

In California, 6.6 million residents lack health coverage—and 12.1 million Californians will be uninsured some part of the year, according to Irma Strantz, chair of HCA’s San Gabriel Valley chapter and one of the event organizers. “One third of the state’s budget goes to health care. We could save $9 billion a year in California alone with a single-payer system,” she said.

A single-payer approach will shift the focus in heath care, from defensive medicine designed more to prevent lawsuits that to improve health, to one that emphasized preventative medicine, according to Jenkins: “Government will have a vested interest in having a healthy populace.”

“Only a single-payer, expanded Medicare-for-all approach ends the current disgraceful practice of insurance companies refusing to pay for medical treatment or engaging in rampant price gouging that discourages patients from going to the doctor, seeing specialists, or getting diagnostic procedures in a timely manner,” said Jenkins, a surgical ICU and trauma RN at the University of California San Diego Medical Center.

Inside-Outside Strategy

Senator Kuehl acknowledged the drawbacks to the half-measures approach of settling for something less than full universal healthcare now:

“When you fix an old house, you pull off the drywall to repair the plumbing, you see the termites and all the other problems,” she said. “Once you’ve finished with all the repairs, you could have built a new house from the ground up much more cheaply. That’s where we are with single payer.”

Kuehl advocated an inside-outside approach, with some of us standing outside, demanding full universal healthcare reform, and others of working on the inside with allied organizations, seeking to make steady increments of progress.

The end of Arnold Swartzenegger’s tour as governor presents another opportunity.

“Arnold came to Sacramento with no experience in government. He thought he could just tell legislators what to do,” she said. “And, although he has been good at bringing together a broad range of viewpoints, he hasn’t yet figured out how to take that advice and mold it into a decision.”

“So far, he’s been a total loss,” she continued. “Now, the only way he can leave a legacy is to sign the single payer bill when it lands on his desk next year.”

On the national scene, Kuehl encouraged the faithful to continue the movement, continue the persuasion, inclusiveness, and empowerment — “then we are part of the equation in creating a national plan.”

Where’s the Inclusiveness?

Another opportunity presents itself with the lack of diversity at the conference itself. Although long-time activists from throughout Greater Los Angeles made it to Pasadena last Saturday, the great majority were senior citizens or those quickly approaching their golden years, and few were people of color. So, many of the communities that could most benefit from a single-payer healthcare system were represented only by proxy.

One way to rectify that would be to use the “inside” approach of working with Democratic elected officials and organizations to bring the healthcare debate to a broader set of California audiences.

Dick Price is the editor of L.A. Progressive, where this piece was first published.

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