“California Speaks”: We Want Single Payer6 min read

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On August 11th, 2007, at the culminating and boisterous OneCareNow rally in Los Angeles, as well as eight coordinated “listening” events around the state, sponsored by Blue Shield and the California Endowment, among others, a random selection of thousands of Californians spoke out overwhelmingly in favor of major health care reform.

At the largest rally of the year, more than two thousand advocates, patients, nurses, doctors and universal health care fans gathered on the steps and lawns of the Los Angeles City Hall to excoriate a health care system that does nothing but devastate working families with systematic cancellations, denials and delays in care. This doesn’t promote health, it isn’t care, and it certainly isn’t a “system”– it’s traumatizing and often deadly for people who thought they would be given care, but, instead, got nothing but a tangle of insurance red tape. Convinced that single-payer universal health care is the only hope for fixing our broken health care system, they gathered to support SB 840 (Kuehl), the only truly universal health care plan proposed in legislation that is shown to contain costs, improve health care quality and allow Californians total choice of their doctors and hospitals.

Perhaps by design, on that same Saturday, health care foundations (including Blue Shield Foundation, Kaiser Family Foundation and the California Endowment) spent over $4 million on an event originally spun as an exercise in “deliberative democracy”, but in reality was carefully structured to control discussion, in order to ask randomly selected participants to discuss and “vote” on their preferences for healthcare reform.

Naming the event CaliforniaSpeaks, organizers claimed the event would bring together thousands of Californians to discuss their perspectives on the current health reform proposals still under debate in Sacramento, yet the agenda was careful to exclude single payer from the discussion. Organizers of the event told us the reason that they didn’t include single payer was because the Governor said he wouldn’t sign it.

Apparently when they said the event was designed to give Californians the chance to set the health care agenda, what they actually meant was that the event would be an opportunity for the people to jump in line with the Governor’s healthcare agenda. As is often the case, the people had a different idea—they did, in fact, jump; they jumped out of their seats demanding that single payer and SB 840 be included in the discussion, forcing the organizers to tack the issue on at the last minute at the end of the day.

The fact that participants were forced, on their own accord, to demand the inclusion of single payer at the CaliforniaSpeaks events clearly indicates that the conventional political message, mostly propagated by the health insurance companies, has yet to understand that two decades worth of traumatized patients and families, along with an even higher consciousness of our failings set out in Michael Moore’s new film, “SiCKO”, has changed health reform politics forever.

Consider the overwhelming standing ovation that Steve Skvara received at last Tuesday’s Democratic Presidential Debate when he asked, chocking back tears, “What’s wrong with America?”, describing how his family lost their guaranteed retiree health coverage when the company who owed it to him filed for bankruptcy. Skvara’s story immediately resonated with millions of Americans across the nation, and he became an instant online celebrity. Why? Because he clearly illustrated our broken health care system and the abuses of corporate greed. Skavara’s story is one of thousands that are positioned to spark the simmering anger that a broad spectrum of Americans feel toward our insurance based non-system.

California families are becoming so hurt and so incensed at insurance company greed and abuse that they are increasingly willing, like nurse Cynthia Campbell’s husband, to pick up a megaphone and plead “Don’t Kill My Wife” in front of Blue Shield’s headquarters. And the transformation crosses the political spectrum. Art DeWerk, the Police Chief for the central valley town of Ceres, spoke out recently in favor of single payer as he described the helplessness he felt after his wife was unable to get timely access to routine medical care as she battled cancer.

These and other stories are found all too often in a health care system where the only competition is between insurance companies focused only on how much risk they can avoid, instead of the more appropriate competition between direct health care providers for quality service, driven by a single payer system that allows total patient choice of doctors and hospitals. And stories like those set out above, as well as others, even worse, will continue until we ditch the “system” that spends 30% of every health care dollar simply to weed out those of us who are sick enough to need our coverage and move to a real universal healthcare system that eliminates the middleman and returns decision making in healthcare to doctors and patients.

By the end of Saturday’s “listening” event, after everyone had discussed the intricacies of the incremental plans, single payer surprised the organizers by polling better than the others, with significantly more people saying they would support it under any condition. For those who supported a generic single payer system, but with conditions, SB 840 was, in fact, the only plan that actually met all the conditions set out by the discussants. For example, 53% of the participants statewide said they would support single payer if they could choose their own doctors and hospitals. SB 840 guarantees this. In contrast, both mandates which define the Governor’s policy paper and the Speaker of the Assembly’s bill, AB 8, received support by the discussants only if there were caps on costs and premiums. In fact, neither proposal currently includes this provision.

Both the rally in Los Angeles and CaliforniaSpeaks showed us that the people of California are way ahead of the Governor, as well as the Speaker, with regard to healthcare. At the end of the day, more participants felt that quality of care shouldn’t depend on how much money you have, that everyone should have access, and that greed should be kept out of the health care system.

Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, later that same day, the Governor was quoted on a Fresno news station as saying he would sign SB 840 “as soon as we have the money for it”. Of course, the Lewin Report, studying the factors set out in the bill, has already shown how the plan will be funded. But, whether the Governor’s pronouncement signals a serious shift in his thinking, it certainly acknowledges the political momentum that SB 840 has garnered. I welcome the conversation on funding, because we’ve got the money. SB 840 can easily be achieved with our current health care spending, personal, employer and state and federal. It would use the money wasted by the insurance companies on denying care to provide it, to all Californians, without co-pays or deductibles, for one affordable premium each year. What we need is the political will to catch up with the will of the people of California.