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Health Care: It's Time for a Major Overhaul

A huge coalition of progressive and union forces is gearing up for political battle on the health care front.

Back in early September, a microcosm of the looming health care debate played out on the stage of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. Karen Ignagni, CEO of the insurers' largest industry association, was leading a roundtable discussion as part of a national "listening tour" organized by her organization, America's Health Insurance Plans. Waiting for Ignagni in the auditorium were activists from the local chapter of ACORN, who had come to share their thoughts on the CEO's market-based reform ideas. It didn't take long before the line of questioning became a little too heated for the Chamber of Commerce moderator.

"What do you expect?" he exploded in front of a stunned audience. "The insurance industry has to make a profit -- that's what they do!"

Following the Albuquerque confrontation, the insurers' group quickly lowered the profile of subsequent roundtables.

Ignagni may or may not have known at the time that those targeting her with ACORN-shaped rhetorical darts represented the activist wing of Health Care for America Now, an umbrella organization launched in July to win a "guarantee of quality, affordable health care for all" by the end of 2009. ACORN is one of 16 groups on the HCAN steering committee, which is a veritable Who's Who of progressive grassroots, netroots, and labor groups, including USAction, MoveOn, SEIU and the AFL-CIO. Four months after launching with a press conference in the National Press Building, HCAN now consists of more than 500 organizations and boasts the backing of the president-elect, his incoming chief of staff and 151 Democratic members of Congress, among them leading progressives and "pro-business" Blue Dogs alike.

As Karen Ignagni and her colleagues in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries are by now well aware, HCAN constitutes a double-threat to those standing in the way of solving America's health care crisis. As it was built to do, the well-funded coalition wields influence inside Washington and out, where it controls a millions-strong activist army, with constituent group organizations complimented by 80 full-time HCAN field staff in 42 states. "We represent the deepest single-issue coalition in modern American history," says Jeff Blum, HCAN co-chairman and USAction director.

The campaign was hatched during a conversation between Blum and Richard Kirsch, one of his board members and current director of HCAN. They were imagining what it would take to push through universal health care, once and for all, sooner rather than later. The wish list that resulted from their musings -- legions of activists, more resources, better research -- led to the idea of a broad coalition that combined Beltway influence and grassroots muscle. Blum and Kirsch first brought together SEIU and AFSCME, two unions with large memberships in the health care sector. The directors of those two groups plus USAction became the founding three co-chairs. By the time HCAN launched the following July, the steering board included community organizations like ACORN, and health care provider organizations like the American Nurses Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Center for American Progress provides the coalition with think-tank heft, as well as further links to the incoming administration and Congress.

HCAN's constituent groups sometimes overlap, yet each brings a unique set of experiences and expertise to the table. "The coalition has a very smart design to it," says Lisa Codispoti of the National Women's Law Center, which sits on HCAN's steering board. "There is a synergy between all of the groups, each of which adds to the narrative." As an example, Codispoti points to a recent National Women's Law Center report detailing how women pay higher premiums in the private health insurance market. Other HCAN groups -- from the Children's Defense Fund to the National Council of La Raza -- have produced similar studies focused on other segments of the population. The result is a tapestry of expertise that forms a comprehensive condemnation of America's private-employer-based system. This expertise is useful to both challenge industry propaganda and guide lawmakers as they debate and craft a final bill.

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