We almost missed the boat. The raucous town hall debates that captured the nation’s attention through the long Congressional recess nearly passed us by. As good as Keith and Rachel and Jon can be, we knew that just catching the wingnut lunacy on the boob tube wasn’t going to cut it.
We had good reasons for being missing in action, of course. During Rep. Henry Waxman’s town hall over on LA’s Westside several weeks ago, we were visiting colleges in Northern California with my 15-year-old daughter Linnea. Heading into her junior year in high school, she’s a good student with dreams of being a vet or doctor.
There’s an old law on California’s books that gives the kids of disabled Vietnam War vets like me a tuition-free ride at any state college or university. Given that opportunity, we started with those monuments to what effective government can do at the highly respected, if not world-class, campuses at UC Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis.
More recently, during new Congresswoman Judy Chu’s affair in East Los Angeles—Duarte, actually—we were helping our friends with the LA Media group put on a two-Saturday training where Will Coley gave a well-received tutorial on how to create low-cost videos to help advance grassroots campaigns.
But those excuses and four dollars will barely get you a cup of coffee nowadays, right?
Urban Issues Town Hall
Salvation came in the form of an invitation from the Urban Issues Breakfast Forum, inviting us to a town hall featuring Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and new Congresswoman Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach). Most months for the past several years we have attended once-a-month Friday morning meetings at these forums, featuring the likes of Cornel West, Eric Dyson, and Mark Ridley-Thomas.
As with this latest town hall, they’re usually held at the California African American Museum, next to the University of Southern California in what folks now want to call “South Los Angeles,” not “South Central” in a public relations scrub.
On television, we had seen the nutcases shouting down members of Congress with wrongheaded, but very angry, inanities. We knew about the mouth-breathers hiding behind the Constitution to terrorize their fellow citizens by packing heat at public events. On the radio, we even heard of fingers being bitten off. We understood that the threat of violence was real and growing. So, we knew we’d need an escape plan, and if that plan was only me knowing which pocket I’d put my keys, Sharon remembering where we’d parked the car, and Nea distracting onlookers with her suddenly reddish ‘Fro—all the plan we could muster in the 104-degree heat—it proved enough in what turned out to be an edifying but rather uneventful day.
Mary Jane Stevenson addressing the audience, flanked by Gerardo Pineda, LA County Department of Health Services; Bradley Rosen, M.D., from Doctors for America; Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach); and Dr. Anthony Samad .
Anthony Samad, the linchpin behind the Urban Issues Forum, set the stage by admonishing, to a deep rumble of ascent from the audience, that no screaming or shouting for the cameras and the nightly news would be tolerated. With effort, I spotted three truculent souls at the back who looked a little like me and might have been thinking along those lines, but then heard nothing further from them.
“People, in the richest nation in the world, there is no reason that if your mother, or your child, or your father, or your uncle gets ill that they should not be able to go anywhere in this country to get quality healthcare,” Samad began. “Yet, this is the only industrialized nation that does not provide some kind of universal health care for its citizens.”
And that pointed to the day’s major rub.
There was clearly a huge desire in this overwhelmingly African American gathering to see Barack Obama succeed as the first black man to take the Big Chair in the White House. At the same time, among a population that bears the brunt of America’s failed health care system, there was an evident desire for profound improvement. “Single-payer,” “Medicare for all,” and “universal healthcare” were the watchwords for the day. “Public option,” “health insurance reform,” and “tinkering on the margins” clearly were not.
Or, as Dr. Bradley Rosen representing Doctors for America later said, “I don’t have anything against the insurance companies or the people who work for them, because they’re hard-working Americans just like you and I. The difference is that they’re functioning in a free market capitalist society and the interest of the healthcare industry, just like for any business, is to make money. The perverse aspect is that we shouldn’t be profiting off withholding care.”
How Much Reform?
We’ve heard that President Obama will make a speech next week in which he will try to regain control of the healthcare debate and lay out just what he expects from the bills Congress will ultimately deliver. Mary Jane Stevenson, head of Organizing for America in California, tried to assure the audience that Obama has not changed his stance on the public option.
“He has eight guarantees for healthcare reform,” she said:
• No discrimination for preexisting conditions
• No exorbitant out-of-pocket expenses
• No cost sharing for preventable care
• No dropping coverage if you get ill
• No gender discrimination
• No annual or lifetime caps on coverage
• Yes on expanding coverage to young adults to 26
• Guaranteed insurance for all.
Stevenson said Obama insiders had assured her that the President has not moved away from demanding some kind of public option, despite rumors otherwise.
Speaker Bass, an early and ardent supporter of Obama’s presidential bid, took a harder line. “We’re not going to let the right-wing fringe hold back this train to reform healthcare in our country and make the United States like every other industrialized country on the planet.”
“How is it that we’re the richest country on the planet and we can’t figure out how to provide healthcare for our population?” she continued. “There are many countries around the world that don’t have nearly the wealth that our country has but somehow—because they have the will, because they have the commitment—they have decided that no one in their society will be without healthcare. I think it’s high time that we do the same thing.”
Bass’s background before becoming an elected official lent special weight to her words. Before 1990, she worked for years as a nurse in neonatal intensive care units around Los Angeles, including County General. Then, later, she became a physician’s assistant, working in County’s trauma unit where critically ill and injured patients would wait hours for care after waiting for hours at private hospital and being turned away because they lacked health insurance.
“I worked 12- and 16-hour shifts with babies born underweight because their moms didn’t have prenatal care, with babies that cost society hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said. “That was 30 years ago; now those babies cost society millions of dollars. Why? Because there wasn’t the preventative healthcare for their mothers.”
Bass pointed to a particular problem in the African American community: the high incidence of diabetes and hypertension.
“Have you seen dialysis units in our community? You don’t see them in every neighborhood,” she said looking out at the many black faces before her. “The two primary reasons for kidney failure are hypertension and diabetes. I imagine most people here today, like me, suffer from one or the other. Having health insurance where chronic disease is confronted will increase life expectancy.”
Rep. Richardson, who has had to hit the ground running in Congress, added that getting people better information and support could cut back on those two killers, providing savings that could make the public option—or even universal healthcare—possible.
For Ted Kennedy
Speaker Bass recalled the recent passing of long-time Senator Ted Kennedy.
“We lost a hero in healthcare reform. It’s so sad that he didn’t live to see it enacted,” she said. “It reminds me of Obama’s grandmother. She lived long enough to vote for him, but not long enough to see him win. Senator Kennedy lived long enough to see [Obama] win and start healthcare reform, but not long enough to see him finish. To me, that left all of us with the challenge to fulfill his dream and a dream for all of us as well.”
For this corner of the world, with people who worked hard to elect Barack Obama, whose lives have already been profoundly changed by his election—just look at their faces—and who desperately want him to succeed, Obama needs to deliver on his promises to fix America’s broken healthcare system.
We may quarrel over whether “profound” can mean public option now, moving toward universal healthcare not too much later — or even Medicare for all now. But we know it doesn’t mean fiddling with the broken health insurance system and hoping the problem goes away.
Barack, it’s time to drive to the hoop. That’s why you fought so hard to get the ball, isn’t it?
Sharon Kyle is the publisher of the LA Progressive. and Dick Price is its editor. They publish several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues.