Supporters of single-payer effort to rally

Posted May 26, 2009, at 9:13 p.m.

Supporters of a proposed Medicare-style health care system for all Americans will rally on Saturday, May 30, at the State House in Augusta. Organizers hope the event will persuade Republican U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine to reconsider their support for federal legislation now being crafted that would give insurance companies a major role in providing coverage to all U.S. citizens.

On Tuesday, both senators indicated they had significant concerns about a strictly public solution to the nation’s complex health care problems.

Any reform that doesn’t focus on developing a national public program like Medicare “will just be reorganizing the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Joe Lendvai of the liberal advocacy organization Midcoast Healthcare Reform. “Our politicians will be more likely to listen if they see people bother to come out and be seen on this issue.”

Lawmakers and representatives of the insurance, pharmaceutical, hospital and other industries have been meeting in Washington this month to work out a plan for achieving universal health care coverage, decreasing costs and improving the quality of care. Hearings to develop the legislation, led by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, have been closed to advocates of a single-payer plan.

On his Web site, Baucus said health care reform “must build on the current system and must involve a public and private sector mix.”

Lendvai said private industry’s for-profit motive ensures that any reform plan that includes a private coverage insurance mandate will end up fattening stockholder portfolios and executive compensation packages before it improves access to quality health care.

Alternatively, HR 676, a bill introduced in January by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., would create an expanded Medicare program. Other proposals for a public single-payer program also are under consideration. Lendvai said many Americans support the idea of a public health coverage system, which most likely would call for participants to pay into the program on a sliding, income-based scale instead of paying private health insurance premiums.

“It is ironic that the people who are dismissing this [public option] … get their health coverage subsidized totally by the U.S. government,” Lendvai said in a recent interview, referring to the health coverage provided to members of Congress.

Tarren Bragdon of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center said Tuesday that Maine’s experience with the DirigoChoice insurance plan should warn the public away from government-run health coverage.

Bragdon said there clearly are problems with the current system but there is no reason to think private insurers and other industry groups shouldn’t be “key players” in the solution.

In an e-mailed statement on Tuesday, Snowe, who serves with Baucus on the Senate Finance Committee, said reform of health insurance regulations is “a prerequisite to achieve sustainable, universal coverage and my colleagues and I … are engaged in doing that.” She said she supports the idea of a strictly public plan as “a last-resort, fallback option” if insurance reforms do not result in “realistic choices among affordable plans.”

In an e-mail, Collins also pointed to the need for reform of the insurance industry and voiced concern about a projected “collapse of the private insurance market if a Washington-run public plan were to be established.” She said she wants to ensure that families are able to keep private insurance coverage if they choose to.

HR 676 is co-sponsored by 75 House members, including Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District.

“She agrees with President Obama that if we were starting from scratch, we would set up a public plan,” said a spokesman from Pingree’s office on Tuesday. Given the complex health care system that has evolved in this country, Pingree will work to see that a public option is included as a component of any larger reform, he said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District is not on the co-sponsor list, and efforts on Tuesday to reach a spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.

Organizers of this Saturday’s rally include the Maine State Nurses Association, Maine AFL-CIO, Veterans for Peace, the Maine Green Independent Party, and the various Peace and Justice groups in Maine.

The rally will take place from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 30, at the State House in Augusta. In addition to speeches by health care professionals and other advocates, the event will feature entertainment, children’s activities, free blood pressure checks, food vendors and other attractions.

On the Web: www.midcoasthealthcarereform.org

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