Bernie Sanders and Nurses Tell Obama: Embrace Single-Payer Health Care
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The following is a transcript of Amy Goodman's interview with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Rose Ann DeMoro from the California Nurses Association on Democracy Now!
Democratic lawmakers are close to unveiling new legislation on healthcare reform they hope to pass before the August recess. On Monday, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel said Democratic Congress members are uniting around a plan that would include a mandate forcing employers to offer insurance or face penalties. Uninsured Americans would also face fines if they chose not to purchase coverage. The proposal would also offer a public "exchange," where consumers could shop for insurance online. Rangel says the exchange would offer a government-run public insurance program. The plan would also impose new restrictions on insurance companies barring the denial of coverage based on preexisting conditions. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy has drafting a Senate proposal also centering around imposing mandates on employers.
President Obama is expected to host a group of Democratic Congress members at the White House today. The meeting comes one week after Obama said he would consider supporting a mandate-based approach to healthcare and the creation of a public insurance option.
On Monday, a group of Republicans wrote a letter to President Obama opposing public insurance, saying, quote, "Forcing free market plans to compete with these government-run programs would create an unlevel playing field and inevitably doom true competition." The letter was signed by all Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee except Maine Senator Olympia Snowe.
In their comments on healthcare, President Obama and Democratic leaders have focused on enormous healthcare costs that they say must be reined in. But their plans would still leave much of the US healthcare system in the hands of for-profit insurance companies that critics say account for most of the unnecessary spending.
Amy Goodman: I'm joined now by two guests. In Washington, DC, independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Earlier this year, he introduced the American Health Security Act of 2009, which would establish a single government program to guarantee healthcare to all Americans, including the 46 million currently uninsured. Senator Sanders is the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history.
And joining us from St. Louis, Missouri, is Rose Ann DeMoro. She is executive director of the California Nurses Association, which has been a leading advocate for single-payer healthcare. Last week, she took part in a meeting arranged by Senator Sanders with Senator Max Baucus, who has excluded single-payer voices from the pivotal Senate Finance Committee hearings on healthcare reform.
Let's start with you, Rose Ann DeMoro. This issue of the exclusion of single-payer voices -- what came out of the meeting?
Rose Ann DeMoro: Well, it was interesting going into the meeting. We had protests. There were a series of protests in the Senate Finance health committee discussions, where registered nurses and physicians had basically walked out, spoke out, walked out, had been arrested. So there were thirteen people who were arrested. Because of that, Senator Sanders was able to actually achieve a meeting for us.
We have been -- basically, single-payer activists, which means basically people who think that we should have a more sane way of doing healthcare in this country, have been excluded. It's been this conspiracy of silence by the -- by Congress, by the Obama administration. And ultimately, you have all the institutional players at the table, but the people who are excluded are the people who are the voice of the people. So -- and I'm sorry for so much background, but going into this meeting--
Goodman:Well, before you go to what -- how Senator Baucus justified excluding them, let's hear a clip from one of the Senate Finance Committee hearings where the doctors and nurses and others were arrested one by one.
Sen. Chuck Grassley:Mr. Chairman --
SUE CANNON:The people at this table have failed Americans for thirty years.
Sen. Max Baucus:Committee in order. We will stand in recess until the police can restore order.
Sue Cannon:We want single payer at this table. Healthcare is a human right. We want guaranteed healthcare. No more Blue Cross's double crosses. We want guaranteed healthcare. No more Aetna or -- thank you. No more Aetna or CIGNA bosses. We want guaranteed healthcare. We want to see our doctors when we need and get our pills that are guaranteed. We're tired of private insurance greed.
Goodman: One of the thirteen people who are calling themselves the Baucus 13 at one of the raucous Baucus caucuses. Rose Ann DeMoro, how did Senator Baucus explain himself, why these voices were excluded?
DeMoro: Well, his demeanor was somewhat apologetic. He actually had said he regretted not having single payer at the table.
But what was the most interesting to me, and it was particularly upon reflection, was that what he said was, "Barack Obama wants a victory." And he said it to us in such a way that later I realized it was as though he was saying, "Didn't you get the memo?" I mean, we're all supposed to be -- we're all supposed to fall in line here.
And I realized, with the exception of Senator Sanders, that there's been this conspiracy of silence, ultimately, that everyone's participated in. The Obama administration has been very adept at getting the institutional players who have premier health insurance at the table to talk about what the rest of America gets. And ultimately, they're -- it's an intentionality with respect to excluding the voice of millions, or the majority, of Americans who have either inadequate healthcare, no healthcare. And ultimately, we're not welcome into the debate, which is absurd.
And so, the registered nurses and physicians across this nation are outraged. And they see what happens with this disgraceful insurance industry at the apex of power, and they see that basically this is a sham. I mean, what's going on in Washington, DC, is basically a disgrace. And Senator Baucus was -- I think he was actually somewhat dumbfounded about the fact that he found himself in the middle of what appears to be a struggle between the people now, the voices of the people, and the Obama administration. That's the feeling that I really very much came away with.
Goodman: Senator Bernie Sanders, how has it happened that single-payer voices have been excluded? And this week, as President Obama makes a major push for healthcare, for some kind of public plan, what is your assessment of it?
Sen. Bernie Sanders: Well, I think Rose Ann is right in her assessment. Single payer has been excluded, because if we are successful through a single payer effort in providing quality, comprehensive, universal healthcare to every man, woman and child, there are no more private insurance companies in this country, and the prices that the pharmaceutical industry charges us -- charge us will go down. So you have the drug companies, the insurance companies, the medical equipment suppliers, who today make huge amounts of money, billions and billions of dollars, off of healthcare, fighting us in an unrelentless way through lobbying, campaign contributions, and advertising to make sure that the system -- the function of the system is to make profits for the private insurance companies rather than quality healthcare to all people. And, Amy, you cannot begin to imagine the power of these special interests who spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions on the process.
Now, I think, on the other hand, what more and more Americans understand, what physicians understand, as Rose Ann indicated, what nurses understand, is that the current system is now dysfunctional. We are wasting close to $400 billion every single year on unnecessary administration, on high CEO compensation packages, on outrageous profits for the insurance industry. A few years ago, a guy named William McGuire of United Healthcare, he was given $1.6 billion in stock options at a time when 46 million Americans have no health insurance and the cost of healthcare is soaring. So, I think what more and more Americans understand is we need a fundamental overhaul of our system, we need one payer to provide comprehensive, cost-effective healthcare to all of our people.
But when you do that, when you move forward in that direction, you are challenging just enormously powerful special interests who have undue influence in Congress. So, what -- as Rose Ann indicated, that's just not a discussable issue. We'll push that off, and we'll figure out how we can tweak the system here, how we can tweak the system here, how we can help people get insurance, but not get to the basic reason as to why our system is so costly and wasteful.
Goodman: You're talking about tweaks. I want to talk about "tweets" in a minute. First, Saturday, President Obama, focusing on healthcare reform in his weekly radio address and internet address, which is now videotaped.
Pres. Obama:Simply put, the status quo is broken. We cannot continue this way. If we do nothing, everyone's healthcare will be put in jeopardy. Within a decade, we'll spend $1 out of every $5 we earn on healthcare, and we'll keep getting less for our money. And that's why fixing what's wrong with our healthcare system is no longer a luxury we hope to achieve; it's a necessity we cannot postpone any longer.
The growing consensus around that reality has led an unprecedented coalition to come together for change. Unlike past attempts at reforming our healthcare system, everyone is at the table: patients' advocates and health insurers, business and labor, Democrats and Republicans alike. A few weeks ago, some of these improbable allies committed to cut national healthcare spending by $2 trillion over the next decade.
We must attack the root causes of skyrocketing healthcare costs. Now, some of these costs are the result of unwarranted profiteering that has no place in our healthcare system. And in too many communities, folks are paying higher costs without receiving better care in return.
Goodman: That was President Obama in his video and internet address. Senator Sanders, your response?
Sanders: I think the first part of his analysis is exactly right. The current cost of healthcare is unsustainable. It means not only large numbers of personal bankruptcies, a great deal of human suffering and unnecessary death. Amy, we have close to 20,000 people die every year in this country, six times more than who lost their lives on 9/11, because they don't have access to a doctor, and they can't get the medical care that they need. So I think his initial statement was correct, that this is unsustainable, from a personal point of view and from an economic point of view.
Unfortunately, the second part of his statement, when he talks about bringing the insurance companies in and bringing all these folks together and the drug companies, I'm afraid we've got a problem in there, because the insurance companies are the basic cause of the problem. You cannot have a cost-effective, quality healthcare system when the main function is to make billions and billions of dollars in profits for private insurance companies and drug companies.
And you've got to bite the bullet and say, number one, are all -- should all Americans be entitled to healthcare as a right? And Obama believes that. I believe that. Most Americans believe that. And then the second question is, if we believe that, what is the most cost-effective way of going forward? And to my view, this is a conservative perspective. If you're interested in saving money, the most cost-effective way is a single-payer system, because the administrative costs, in terms of a program like Medicare or the Veterans Administration, is substantially less than what the private insurance companies are doing.
Goodman: Well, you're pushing on the issue of single-payer healthcare; he's also getting pushed from other places. On Sunday, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa put out this message on Twitter. He tweeted, quote, "Pres Obama you got nerve while u sightseeing in Paris to tell us 'time to deliver' on health care. We still on skedul/even workinWKEND." I'm quoting exactly as he wrote this. Later in the day, Senator Grassley added, "Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said 'time to delivr on healthcare' When you are a 'hammer' u think evrything is NAIL I'm no NAIL." Your response, Senator Sanders?
Sanders: Well, I think it's -- you know, the President of the United States is also dealing with major international crises, has a right to go abroad. I think that's an unfair criticism from Senator Grassley. On the other hand, what is important is that we get this right. This is a huge issue for the American people and for our economy. And I would rather get it right than get it passed within a certain deadline.
Goodman: Can you explain what this public option is that is being crafted by Senator Kennedy, Senator Baucus, when -- by the way, when Barack Obama was at a town hall meeting in New Mexico, someone stood up and said, "Why aren't you weighing single-payer?" President Obama responded, "If we were starting from scratch, I would say that was the best suggestion." But she also said, "Isn't Senator Baucus -- wouldn't you call it a conflict of interest that he gets so much money from the health insurance industry?"
Sanders: Well, it's not just Senator Baucus. I mean, let's be very clear, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the medical equipment suppliers, they have hundreds of lobbyists. They've spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years getting their way. And that is what the --
Goodman: Your analysis of Senator Kennedy's bill?
Sanders: It is -- first of all, it's in flux. As soon as I leave this program, I'm going to be going to a meeting where we continue to discuss it. But bottom line, at the very least, what we need is a strong public option, which essentially would mean an expanded Medicare program that anybody in America could get into, regardless of their age.
Goodman:And Rose Ann DeMoro, the Kennedy option that is put forward and your assessment of that?
DeMoro:I think our assessment is -- excuse me -- that he's trying to achieve a smaller hole in the parachute. I mean, I think, at the end of the day, this isn't going to work. And what's going to happen -- the Republicans, by the way, in terms of Grassley, they're going to fight a public option just as hard as they would fight single payer. I mean, this is the insurance companies' influence in politics. And so, you know, Barack Obama is going to come under the same severe type of criticism, whether he tweaks their system or whether he overhauls it. I think that, you know, the truth of the matter is, Barack Obama knows better, and he is choosing not to act. And that's what's puzzling to us.
If you look, everywhere in the industrialized world, they have a single-payer healthcare system or some form of national healthcare. No one wants to give it up. It's the only thing -- you know, he's got -- Barack Obama has this very, very intense love for technology, because it's evidence-based, it's proven. The only evidence-based system in the world is a single-payer healthcare system or a national healthcare system. There's nothing -- these are all -- excuse me -- these are all basically experimental plans.
And what's going to happen here is, basically, good people are going to come up with bad consequences. That's as it appears to us. They're essentially creating a healthcare ghetto, where the -- you know, they're not saying what the level of benefits are. They're not saying how comprehensive the plan are. And so, the politically disenfranchised and the economically destitute are going to be put into -- they're still at the whim of the insurance industry.
So you've got a system that's set up to fail. You have the healthy and wealthy with private insurance and then the rest of us going into this, basically publicly, probably inadequately, funded healthcare plan, where the level of benefits have not been articulated, where the types of benefits are not articulated, where Obama -- it looks that -- it seems that President Obama is seeking a victory, a political victory, rather than having an honest policy debate. And that's what --
Goodman:Rose Ann DeMoro, I want to ask you and then Senator Sanders this one question. Right now, if you were trying to move forward and get something accomplished before August recess, how would you strategically lay out a plan? You each have twenty seconds.
DeMoro:I would do what Barack Obama did in his election. I would take -- I would show leadership, I would bite the bullet and be honest with the American people and do a single-payer healthcare system.
Goodman:Senator Bernie Sanders?
Sanders:Well, I agree with Rose Ann. We need a strong, effective, grassroots movement that tells the President that if he goes forward for a single-payer system, he will have the backing of tens and tens of millions of Americans, including many physicians and nurses. And I want to congratulate Rose Ann and her organization for their effort in this process.
Goodman: We're going to leave it there. Senator Bernie Sanders, independent Senator from Vermont, longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history. By the way, Vermont is the -- the Republican governor just attempted to veto the budget in Vermont, and the legislature overrode that veto. Rose Ann DeMoro is executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Association Organizing Committee, speaking to us from St. Louis.