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Santa Fe Reporter (New Mexico)

Protesters Deliver a Message about Health Care—but Can Leaders Deliver?

Corey Pein

Activist group organized rallies last week at the district offices of US Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both Democrats who already support “public option” health care. Photo by Caroline K Gorman.

SANTA FE, N.M. - Imagine a health care plan that covered pretty much any medical cost incurred inside or outside of a hospital, from emergency room visits to preventative care-plus dental care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, physical therapy and all the prescription drugs one can eat.

In March, US Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, introduced such a plan, the "American Health Security Act." It would automatically enroll every US citizen in a federally regulated, state-run medical insurance program-a so-called "single payer" plan.

It is not the health care plan Congress is about to pass.

Most of the generally Medicare-aged rallygoers at a July 9 health care rally held pre-printed signs demanding a "public option" plan. A few held hand-lettered "single payer" signs.

Both slogans probably read like gibberish to many passersby. Regardless, it was clear that many public option sign holders, in their heart of hearts, support a single-payer plan like Sanders.'

"You've got to take what you can get, then you go after what you want," picketer Genevieve Cervera said, after calling single payer a "lost cause."

David Pease, a Santa Fean who has also lived in England and Canada, was less fatalistic. "They keep saying a single-payer solution is off the table," Pease told the crowd. "I say if a single-payer solution is off the table, we should get rid of the table."

Sanders' plan is controversial because it would ban the sale of private health insurance that duplicates any government-funded services (although individuals and employers would still be able to purchase coverage for extra benefits).

If single payer has gotten nowhere, New Mexico's elected representatives are part of the reason why. All, in vague terms, endorse the emerging Democratic Party consensus-shaped by private hospitals and insurance companies who have billions of dollars at stake in the outcome of the debate-toward a public option plan.

Sanders' bill wound up in the 23-member Senate Finance Committee, of which US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, is among the senior most members. Finance Committee leadership has ensured Sanders' bill will never see a vote.

Instead, that committee-as well as the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on which Bingaman also serves-is so far backing the public option approach favored by President Barack Obama.
Such an approach maintains the status quo, except that private health insurance plans would have to compete with a new, government-run insurance program. Labor unions and business owners alike are concerned this approach may do little to lower medical costs nationwide.

Obama had hoped to sign a health care reform bill by August, when Congress takes a recess. As of July 13, that deadline was looking unlikely.

"He might as well give up if he can't get this done with 60 senators," Santa Fe health care protester Robert Baroody says of Obama. Perhaps Baroody's harsh judgment is no surprise, given that he helped run Ralph Nader's last presidential campaign in New Mexico. But such dissatisfaction was the norm among Baroody's fellow protesters outside Bingaman's office on Marcy Street.

"We voted for these people to get this job done," Cervera said.

Rally organizer Carol Nicola noted that Bingaman was slow to support even the middle-of-the-road public option plan. Why? "One could say, perhaps, lobbying influence," Nicola said.

In fairness, if New Mexico's congressional delegation has followed rather than lead in the health care debate, it's not necessarily because its members are bought and paid for. It's just as likely they simply lack influence. Bingaman is the only non-freshman of the bunch, although US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, served five terms in the US House.

In 2006, when he ran for re-election, Bingaman took $348,263 in donations from the health care industry-triple the average for senators elected that year.

That was an exception to the rule: New Mexico's delegation otherwise doesn't crack the top 20 when it comes to campaign contributions from medical and insurance companies. That's significant, because donors tend to target the most powerful politicians.

What follows are total campaign donations from health care interests to New Mexico's congressional delegation members over the span of their careers, as calculated by the Center for Responsive Politics at

Only Bingaman had significant insurance industry contributions, so SFR didn't list insurance contributions to the other lawmakers. For comparison's sake, the average US representative has taken $34,676 in donations from "health professionals;" the average US senator has taken $84,983.

Rank of "health professionals" among industry contributors: 2
Total from health pros: $547,616
Rank of the insurance industry: 11
Total from insurance: $160,875
Number of New Mexico children who could've been insured for a year with the sum of those contributions: 968*
Boilerplate health care statement from website: "I strongly support a public option. The most critical elements of such a plan are that it would be established and overseen by the federal government, and made available to all Americans."

Rank of health pros among industry contributors: 9
Total from health pros: $276,170
Children that money could've insured: 377
Interview talking points: "I'm in support of a public option. I think we need it to keep the insurance companies honest. I think we need the competition that a public option would bring," Udall tells SFR.

Rank of health pros among industry
contributors: 9
Total from health pros: $41,050
Children that money could've insured: 56
Boilerplate: "It's time to fix this broken system that is making it difficult for families to make ends meet. Ben supports comprehensive health care reform that makes health care affordable and accessible for American families."

Rank of health pros among industry
contributors: 10
Total from health pros: $56,550
Children that money could've insured: 77
Boilerplate: "We should use our ingenuity to develop a fair, common sense plan to make sure that every American has access to high quality affordable health care."

Rank of health pros among industry
contributors: 14
Total from health pros: $40,900
Children that money could've insured: 56
Boilerplate: "Harry will work to make sure every American takes responsibility for his or her health by choosing an option that is affordable and works for them. Harry also believes that in order to decrease the cost of health insurance, we must bring a new focus on prevention."

* Based on the cost of basic coverage for a person under 18 in the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool.

SFR interns Alex Roberts and Caroline K Gorman contributed reporting.

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