Defying Washington's conventional wisdom on health care reform, two senior Democratic House members are preparing a grassroots campaign to sustain a vigorous public option following a vote scheduled Saturday.
To keep Speaker Nancy Pelosi's proposed H.R. 3962 as strong as possible during conference negotiations with the Senate, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas are building on momentum from the unique town hall-style hearing they hosted Oct. 27.
The hearing generated videos of patients facing death because they could no longer afford their insurance or co-pays. It featured also physicians urging a public option, and a 1960s civil rights icon urging that basic health care should be a fundamental human right, as in most of the industrialized world.
But a public option faces a potentially fatal counter-attack during the weeks ahead because of lack of follow-up by its proponents despite favorable poll numbers, inspirational rhetoric and countless horror stories.
Not Enough Political Muscle for Option?
"We're not seeing enough political muscle to sustain a strong public option right now, and we might not get anything at all," a senior Hill health policy aide told me Nov. 4.
"Where are the buses of supporters?" he asked. "Sometimes we don't get a single visitor on this for days, and barely a phone call. Where are the national strategy meetings like the civil rights groups had in the Sixties? The major public option advocates are too afraid of antagonizing the White House. This is what I call 'Russian Roulette lobbying,' with people thinking: 'Maybe things will be OK.' With that attitude, I don't think so " not when you're up against Republicans and insurance companies."
The oft-controversial Jackson Lee, for one, is speaking out. "We are now losing 45,000 people every year," she says, citing estimates that annual fatalities from lack of health coverage almost match the total for the Vietnam War, the nation's longest. "This is a life-and- death crisis."
Conyers and Jackson Lee each described their Oct. 27 hearing for ordinary patients and physicians as a pivotal moment in the fight for a public option, with numerous speakers suggesting also a theme that health care is akin to a civil right.
But even without the civil rights analogy, the current health care debate is developing an increasingly nasty racial subtext, as indicated by a Nov. 4 Huffington Post article on a new business group ad implying that health reform will cost whites their jobs.
Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid included a weak public option in pending House and Senate bills, even though a solid front of congressional Republicans, private insurers and most mainstream media have long disparaged the concept that insurers should have to compete with a government plan to keep insurance costs affordable.
A Congressional Budget Office study last week predicts that few consumers are likely to use the Pelosi bill's public option because Pelosi's rules would steer too many older or seriously ill customers into the public plan, thus creating unattractive pricing for others.
Also, Pelosi's bill removed the proposal passed by the Education & Labor Committee by a bipartisan 27-19 vote that enabled states to create single-payer plans, leaving a model much like the Massachusetts experiment that is now attacked by critics from both parties as potentially unviable.
John Nichols, a columnist at The Nation, slammed the Pelosi bill. But fellow liberal and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman urged Democrats to approve the deal as the best one possible now. Indeed, the Washington Post reported Nov. 4 a counter-attack by so-called moderates to strip the option from the Senate bill.
Public Views on Public Option