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The DNC's 'Guaranteed Healthcare' Reality Check

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By Donna Smith, American SiCKO, national co-chair PDA's Healthcare Not Warfare campaign
PITTSBURGH -- So, healthcare voting friends, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) platform committee added the language "guaranteed healthcare for every man, woman and child in America" to its Party platform yesterday in Pittsburgh.  Was it simply to placate Hillary Clinton delegates?  Was the DNC squelching activists' voices for single payer reform?  Or was something else at work here?  Perhaps an actual democratic process that played out with a wide variety of motivations but also a wider variety of potential outcomes and wide open possibility?
Because I was there -- and I mean there as one of the people who negotiated the changes in language with Rep. John Conyers and DNC platform committee member Bob Remer of Chicago -- I can tell you that there probably was a little nodding to the Clinton camp and some hope to quiet the single payer rumblings, but the much more significant outcomes are yet to be from that language shift from universal health "coverage" to guaranteed health "care." That is if we who are in this for the long haul grab this moment and this victory and make it our own.
And believe it or not, I actually witnessed some truly noble behavior by our Party.  Was it a hearkening back to our roots? Or an effort to quiet a seemingly meaningless rebellion and move a united front to Denver?  Or a reaching boldly toward the future?  Maybe a little of "all of the above..."
Are the Progressive Dems finished with their fight in favor of HR676, John Conyers' "National Health Insurance Act" already co-sponsored by 91 members of Congress?  Not by a long shot. In the AP account of the day's activities, the reporter got it wrong.  It's hard to say if someone from the DNC pitched him on the point -- I didn't see that happen but the big boys were working pretty hard.  But allow me to set the record straight: Single payer reform was never taken off any table -- in fact, a language shift a bit deeper in the platform section on healthcare specifically adds the terminology, "everybody in and no one left out" to the mix.  Heard that before?  Everybody in, Nobody out. 
And I promise you the reasons for inserting that specific language -- as innocuous as it may seem to the general reader -- should send a signal of seismic levels to those thundering forward to Denver and beyond.  It is in ours hands, my friends, it is now in our hands.
The Meat Grinder:
But, for those of you who wonder how all of this unfolded and just how one middle-aged grandma from Chicago inserted a voice -- OK, demanded that her voice be inserted -- here's a first hand account of 27 hours on the ground in Pittsburgh and on the way to "guaranteed healthcare for all."
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Back to the activists' tour, the only flight my wonderful PDA folks and I could find on short notice and at a price we could afford took me from O'Hare to LaGuardia (ugh and double ugh) and then from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh.  Eight hours later, I arrived at the Westin Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.  Nice digs. Paid for by others activists.  Since I had been in transit the better part of the afternoon and evening, I had little word about whether or not the platform committee member we found willing to offer PDA's amendment on "guaranteed healthcare for all" had made the 5 p.m., Friday deadline to file that amendment or not.  I soon found out he had done so and had already been deeply involved in the DNC's platform leadership's efforts to alter the language of the amendment.
But Bob Remer was already hard at work.  Bob was (and is) a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton's.  From the icy cold in Iowa to this moment, Bob believed with his heart and his head that Sen. Clinton was his top choice to lead his nation.  A big, hulking fellow with a rich history of community and political involvement and a career spent working in the healthcare field, Bob did see the strengthening of the platform language on healthcare as a way to honor Sen. Clinton. So, I thought, that's fine, so long as we agree that every American has a basic human right to healthcare.  We didn't know one another before that moment.  But here in a hotel coffee shop in Pittsburgh, two ordinary folks from Chicago were hoping we could push our Party off the mark on this issue and toward true reform.  We both agreed that the platform is not where legislative details or programs are either negotiated or adopted -- and because we disagreed on what the final outcome of health reform legislation might be, Bob and I quickly moved beyond that discussion.  He supports a Clinton-type reform while I am firmly in the single payer camp.
So on Friday night, with my mind screaming for some rest, and my need to do some more work I had not been able to do in the air -- on some blog writing and postings and prepare for the next day's press conference --  I felt it best to relax a bit and get to know Bob.  I know, slacker Donna.  The guilt and the conflicting pressures are part of my work-ethic run amok which many simply exploit -- and which also has been terrifically heightened by my fears that unless I work harder and smarter than every other person I will once again be homeless and without voice as a victim of the healthcare crisis. And I am not a victim any longer, so I work -- a lot. Such an aside, sorry.
When the DNC folks came to lobby Bob -- which they did repeatedly -- to alter the amendment's language, I wanted the personal relationship formed with me to also inform his choices.  I suggested we not agree to any language morph on the amendment unless and until Rep. Conyers was with us in the morning.  He liked that idea, and I did too.  I figured it couldn't hurt to bring along a couple of big guns.  Bob and I wondered briefly if we could actually move our Party even a bit toward a more just reality in the healthcare reform arena.  And then it was time to rest up for Saturday.
I slept only from 1 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. as I was fired up and worried about work and worried about my husband at home not feeling well.  I spent as much time as I could on the hotel computer (at $6.95 every 15 minutes that wasn't long).  But down in the convention center where the DNC platform committee would be meeting, Bob was already at work.  And we had some wonderful local folks who had somehow decided the PDA amendment wasn't single-payer friendly decide to leaflet against the amendment -- interesting strategy, I thought.  And because of that leafleting, I think some of the amendment's strength was diminished.  It's the old and time-tested yet failed pattern of activists targeting one of their own rather than forming a united front.  It hurt to see that, but I actually thought it quite interesting to see all the various levels of interest playing out -- and all the agendas, hidden and not.
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All the while, PDA's fearless leader, Tim Carpenter, called in frequently with his classic, 'We've got your back" calls -- a tremendous offering of support and confidence in what his on-the-ground co-chairs are doing on our collective PDA behalf.  Another PDA friend and single payer stalwart, Chuck Pennachio, of HealthCare4AllPA worked tirelessly in the crowd spreading the good word of amendment #33, guaranteed healthcare for all.
And a wonderful new PDA friend, Harvie Branscomb of Colorado, flew in to Pittsburgh just to help support the effort.  He handed out fliers and offered such support to us all as we worked through the committee members.
Conyers arrived and he and I and Chuck participated in a press conference hosted by State Sen. Jim Ferlo of Pittsburgh -- a tireless advocate of single payer.  Meanwhile, Bob was in the DNC platform meeting room.  Conyers eloquently talked about the long haul -- the plodding, committed work it takes to make legislative change.  He repeated the idea that HR676 will move along much more quickly as soon as a co-sponsor comes from the other side of the political aisle.  And it will happen, he said. "Everything is everything," he quipped as he shared a story meant to validate all of the various efforts to push reform -- every point of pressure having its place in the whole.
When we wrapped up the press conference, Bob and a representative from the Obama/DNC effort came to talk about the amendment language.  As Conyers stood up-front getting his photo taken with citizens and talking to people, the DNC fellow said that as soon as Conyers was done, he and Bob would meet with him to discuss the amendment.  I couldn't tell exactly what the plan was in terms of my participation but I quickly said that as a PDA Healthcare Not Warfare co-chair with Conyers, I wanted to come along for this meeting.  All agreed.
We walked to the center of the open refreshment area of the convention center. And around a raised cocktail table meant to allow folks to eat $3 hot pretzels, chips and sip $2 sodas, Bob, me and the chairman of the House Judiciary (and my fellow PDA Healthcare NOT Warfare campaign co-chair) John Conyers talked platform language with two or three DNC/Obama folks who would then race back to the meeting room and confer. 
I was incredibly honored that Conyers deferred to me and Bob on the language of "guaranteed health care" not coverage, and also I referenced a connection I have of my own within the Obama camp with whom I had also reviewed our amendment language to make sure they all understood that this language was agreeable and simply (and strongly) expressed a common goal: to guarantee one of our basic human rights.  I suppose I felt it necessary to wipe away this notion that those of us in this movement do not have the smarts or the pull to develop our own connections and strategies.  I may be a grandmom from Chicago, but ... well, you get the picture.
Both Bob and I let it be known that the American people are not stupid and they do know the difference between health"care" and insurance coverage, and that we agree that the legislative process must now work out the details of achieving the amendment's pledge, but that we were unwavering in that wording: "guaranteed health care for every man, woman and child."  Another committee member actually liked the man, woman, and child tag -- Bob and I wanted it to say "every American," but so be it, we concurred, so be it.
Then we added the "everybody in and no one left out" phrasing later in the discussion.  And I hope that signals to every single payer advocate in the land that the battle is on -- we are in the mix, no matter what the AP reporter helped spin or misunderstood.  Everyone gathered around that table heard me say that -- there was no direct support expressed for our position besides mine but there also was no opposition expressed.  So, again, the ball is now in our court, good citizens.  
Conyers patted Bob and me on the back -- wonderful and wise legislator that he is -- and said, "this is huge."  In the overall context of world order, did we accomplish all that we wanted?  No.  But did we make a dent?  Did we stake a claim for real reform?  Yes, we did.  And knowing as Conyers can know after more than 40 years in Congress, negotiating in the right direction of the desired goal is tough work, and perhaps made a bit tougher when you are just Donna and Bob from Chicago up against some of the political and policy wonks who have agendas and ambitions way out of this world compared to ours.
The DNC/Obama gang raced back to Bob with the written and corrected amendment, went over how it would be presented and then told us it would be up for consideration right after the break.  Conyers bid us farewell and walked off for yet some more meetings. 
Back to the floor 
Back inside the ballroom, the platform committee was called back to order.  Bob stood at the microphone with another committee member and they read the amendment.  The chair called vote seconds.  And here, fellow Dems, is where the nobility and the dignity entered the picture.
Do I have seconds for this amendment, the chair asked?  And slowly but deliberately, nearly every platform committee member present rose to their feet in support.  They stood.  For guaranteed healthcare for all.  They stood in support.
And moments later, after hearing comments of support from Chris Jennings, senior health policy advisor during the Bill Clinton administration (and one of our cocktail table DNC negotiators), the chair called the amendment for a vote.  All in favor, "AYE" -- All opposed -- silence.  Guaranteed healthcare for all passed unanimously.
Bob and I hugged in the back of the room.  And we both cried.  A victory from two people who didn't even know one another two days ago -- and who share different views on how we get to the place so clearly stated in our amendment.  It is our Party that allowed us to do this work, and it is our Party that will make guaranteed healthcare for all a reality.
Going forward
I have no illusions.  And especially after this gruelling few days.  The fight to actually achieve guaranteed healthcare for all is not going to be any easier -- and in some ways those who oppose us will grow even more devious and they will pour more money into the battle.  As evidenced by the AP report and other reports that somehow show this as a brokering on behalf of a Hillary Clinton plan, the reality was much cleaner and much more clear and we'll need to be vigilant in our calling for honesty and for clarity as we move forward.
In the airport hours later, Chuck Pennachio and I sat sharing just a few moments of joy surrounding our shared victory.  We also wanted to honor all those advocates who share our continued commitment to the passage of single payer, healthcare reform.  Publicly financed, privately delivered, guaranteed healthcare for all.  HR676.
As we rapid-fired ideas at one another for the future, Chuck scrawled on an airport napkin what we thought Conyers might want to title HR676 when he introduces it once again but this time to a new, more progressive Congress in 2009.  "The National Guaranteed Healthcare for All Act." 
Bravo, PDA, bravo. Onward.

 

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Donna Smith appeared in Michael Moore's 2007 film, "SiCKO," and spent five years working for National Nurses United/California Nurses Association in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as their single-payer political organizer/educator.  She is now the executive director of Health Care for All Colorado and lives in Denver with her husband of 38 years, Larry


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With over 40 million Americans presently without h... by Dennis Kaiser on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008 at 3:37:53 AM
Make no mistake.  PDA does not want a Clinton... by Donna Smith on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008 at 6:10:25 AM
Her "plan", just like has been said befo... by scott creighton on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008 at 10:01:34 AM
How many people asked for this?I have been scream... by steve scheetz on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008 at 10:19:33 AM
but one of the very FIRST things the Department of... by scott creighton on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008 at 11:01:58 AM
     I apologize. This is so s... by mikel paul on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008 at 10:43:03 AM
This is what you wrote.  If healthcare is a b... by Joe Reeser on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008 at 11:37:32 AM
Well said, Dennis Kaiser. Americans will ... ... by Bob the Health and Health Care Advocate on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008 at 3:34:34 AM
Scott, you wrote that you are so offended by the h... by Bob the Health and Health Care Advocate on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008 at 4:03:58 AM
Steve. Since you feel you have been "shouted... by Bob the Health and Health Care Advocate on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008 at 4:46:33 AM