The DNC's 'Guaranteed Healthcare' Reality Check

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. It is significant --that language shift from universal health "coverage" to guaranteed health "care"-- and we who are in this for the long haul must 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? Was it an effort to quiet a seemingly meaningless rebellion and move a united front to Denver? Or, was it 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 further along in the healthcare section specifically adds the terminology, "everybody in and no one left out." 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 our 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 herself--OK, demanded that she 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."

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 and then from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh. Eight hours after I departed Chicago I arrived at the Westin Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Nice digs. Paid for by other activists. Since I had been in transit the better part of the afternoon and evening, I didn't know whether or not Bob Remer of Chicago, the platform committee member who agreed to offer PDA's amendment on "guaranteed healthcare for all" to the committee, had made the Friday, 5 p.m.filing deadline. I soon found out he had done so and had already been deeply involved in efforts to alter the language of the amendment with the DNC's platform committee leadership.

This was the first time I met Bob. He 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 the best candidate 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 felt the strengthening of the platform language on healthcare was 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 sat in the hotel coffee shop in Pittsburgh, two ordinary folks from Chicago, 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 finish some work I had not been able to do in the air--blog writing and postings and preparing for the next day's press conference--I relaxed a bit and got to know Bob. (The guilt and conflicting pressures are the result 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. Since I am not a victim any longer, I work--a lot.)

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 change 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 healthcare reform. 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.

There were some wonderful local folks who had somehow decided the PDA amendment wasn't single-payer friendly who decided 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, tired, and 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.

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 for our collective 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.

PDA friend, the wonderful Harvie Branscomb of Colorado, flew in to Pittsburgh just to help support the effort. He handed out fliers and offered 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 healthcare. 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 HR 676 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 and talking to the onlookers, 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. Around a raised cocktail table meant to allow folks to eat $3 hot pretzels, chips and sip $2 sodas, Bob, I 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 made repeated trips to and from the conference room.

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. Even grandmoms from Chicago have the smarts to develop our own connections and strategies, a notion that I am just becoming accustomed to.

Both Bob and I commented 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. We were unwavering in our commitment to the wording: "guaranteed health care for every man, woman and child."

Then we suggested adding the "everybody in and no one left out" phrasing in a later passage of the plank. The DNC/Obama negotiators returned to the conference room from which they originally emerged. I hope that signals to every single-payer advocate in the land that the battle is on. 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, the ball is now in our court, good citizens.

Conyers patted Bob and me on our backs-wonderful and wise legislator that he is-and said, "This is huge." Did we accomplish all that we wanted? No. Did we make a dent? Did we stake a claim for real reform? Yes, we did. And knowing as Conyers can only know after more than 40 years in Congress, negotiating in the right direction of the desired goal is tough work. When you are just Donna and Bob from Chicago up against some of the country's foremost political hacks and policy wonks who have personal agendas and ambitions, it's tougher still.

The DNC/Obama gang returned with the written and corrected amendment for Bob's approval, discussed 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 for 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 earlier--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 these grueling 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. HR 676.

As we brainstormed ideas and strategies for the future, Chuck scrawled on an airport napkin what we thought Conyers might want to title HR 676 when he re-introduces it to a new, more progressive Congress in 2009. "The National Guaranteed Healthcare for All

Bravo, PDA, bravo. Onward.

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Donna Smith is a Communications Specialist for California Nurses Association (CNA) and the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) as well as the national co-chair for PDA's Healthcare Not Warfare campaign.

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