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.