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Four Voices in the Senate for Healthcare Justice

There were no reports in the media Tuesday about the four United States Senators who voted for a bit of sanity today in the midst of the complexity of the race to reform healthcare in the United States. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio all voted to allow individual states the right to pass and implement publicly funded, privately delivered single payer healthcare programs, if they should choose to do so.

But the other Senators on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee didn't want to support the amendment to the health reform legislation. Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico was perhaps the most vocal in his opposition to the state single payer enabling amendment as he argued that he felt those Americans happy with their coverage through private or some of the public plans would not want to face a change to a single payer system.

Sen. Sanders offered clarification that answered the concern, but Sen. Bingaman did not budge. That made me mildly sad, though didn't surprise me. Many people in New Mexico have been working on a state healthcare reform bill that would allow citizens of the state to pool together to "self insure" in their single payer system. It is an innovative and interesting answer to a crisis that looms as large in Santa Fe and Albuquerque as it does anywhere else in the nation.

It was refreshing to hear the four Senators affirm their support if not for single payer outright then at least for states' rights. Many state and local governments have been absolutely devastated by the costs of providing healthcare to their employees and their retirees - and that has hurt school districts and road improvement programs and recreation districts and more for years. It seems to me common sense that states ought to have the absolute right to fix the mess in a way that makes sense for their citizenry. But that argument just didn't prevail in the Senate.

Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming said he'd hold his comments on the matter until Senator Sanders brings a single payer bill up on the floor of the Senate later in this process, as Sen. Sanders promised he would do. So just because the amendment failed it does not keep Senator Sanders from introducing single payer again. And he'll need support . I can hardly wait to hear that anti-single payer propaganda from Enzi and probably a good number of conservatives who still want people to buy that public funding means bad policy while protecting for-profit private insurance companies with taxpayer money is all-American, red-white-and-blue, patriotism. I trust those with some gumption in the Senate will rise to that occasion and speak the truth.


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There may be many reasons our Senators argue against single payer, but the one that is the most powerful is the one they'll least admit. The insurance industry in investing $1.4 million a day to make sure no state is allowed to innovate with anything close to a single payer plan, as Sen. Sanders reiterated in the mark-up session, and the insurance industry must make sure that they'll be sitting pretty when the monstrosity of a 2009 healthcare reform bill is signed in the Rose Garden.

I wonder how many more dead New Mexicans will be required before those losses are felt in Washington, DC. And how many more Californians dead? New Yorkers? How about closed recreation centers and unfilled pot holes and underfunded schools?

I hope as the next few days pass, those of us who care will weigh in with our Senators. Some thanks are due to those who cared enough to vote affirmatively for state single payer efforts, and some direct attention for those who think we'll accept a bail-out of the for-profit insurance industry in place of a truly reformed system is in order.

Now. Before it's too late for this Congress. Because if we let them, they'll pass a mess that will make the Medicare Part D complexity look simple and will still leave us in a mess. We deserve better. We need that single payer debate on the Senate floor to include more voices representing all of us and fewer protecting an industry that has bought off even some of our Senators who might otherwise hear the people back home.

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith Donna Smith is the national chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign for Progressive Democrats of America.  She was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO.

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