Conference calls keep movement alive

By Bennett Hall for

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, and Betty Johnson and Mike Huntington are huddled around a cordless phone set up on a folding table in Johnson’s Corvallis living room. The two veteran health care activists listen intently to the voices coming over the speaker.

A caller from Portland is talking about an upcoming hearing for a single-payer health care bill in the Oregon Legislature.

Someone from Minnesota reports on the prospects for a similar measure there.

A man from Colorado discusses some of the other health care reform bills that are competing with a single-payer plan in his state.

Johnson, who’s been jotting notes on a steno pad, puts down her pen and jumps into the conversation.

“We need to stay on top of the legislature and try to get the best we can out of whatever bill comes out, with the understanding that single payer is what we’ll have eventually,” she suggests. “So we’re on two tracks all the time.”

For almost a year now, scenes like this have been playing out all across the country as health care reformers get together once a week via long distance to compare notes on the fight in their home states — and to dream of a day when the whole country might be covered by a publicly financed health care program.

The loose-knit coalition — dubbed the One Payer States — sprang from a meeting last April in Wayne, Pa., where single-payer activists had gathered to strategize in advance of a progressive political conference.

Bitterly disappointed in the massive federal health care bill signed just days earlier by President Barack Obama, the participants agreed that the best hope for progress toward single-payer health care now resides with the states. They formed an online discussion group to stay in touch, and soon they were holding conference calls every Friday morning.

The calls have evolved into a lively forum for the U.S. single-payer movement. In addition to providing updates on single-payer legislation (nearly 20 states could consider some variation on the theme this year), callers trade war stories on lobbying lawmakers, swap suggestions on converting skeptics and exchange ideas on everything from mobilizing volunteers to managing donor databases.

The number of participants varies from week to week, as does the topic, but Huntington said he always learns something worthwhile.

“There’s lots of knowledge and not much overhead control,” said the former radiation oncologist, who has devoted himself to health care reform since retiring in 2006.

“We gather the pearls as people mention them from Colorado or Hawaii or Illinois and do what we can with them.”

While the immediate goal of the One Payer States is to promote single-payer bills in individual states, the group has also caught the attention of organizations still working toward a nationwide single-payer system.

Donna Smith, an organizer for National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, was one of the people who helped launch the group, and she’s a regular participant in the weekly calls.

“I think the maximum number of states we’ve had (represented) at any one time is 23 or 24, which is remarkable,” she said. “There are a lot of flowers blooming out there right now.”

Despite the efforts of diehards like Michigan’s John Conyers, who recently reintroduced his Medicare for All bill in the House, single payer has been all but forgotten in Congress. And with President Obama endorsing a move to let states enact their own reforms as early as 2014, many activists believe that’s where change will have to happen.

“There are those who really feel that a state-by-state effort is the way to go,” Smith said.

Mark Almberg, communications director for Physicians for a National Health Program, said state bills help keep single payer in the national health care reform conversation. They also play a crucial educational role, chipping away at some of the lingering objections in the public mind.

“Personally, I view the state single-payer efforts as contributing to the larger goal,” Almberg said.

But he also thinks state-level reforms could serve as a bridge that ultimately leads to a national single-payer health care system.

As an example, he points to Canada. Our neighbor to the north has had a national single-payer health care system since 1984 — but it only came about after each of the country’s 13 provinces and territories passed single-payer plans of their own.

Katie Robbins, a national organizer for Healthcare Now, is hoping the U.S. follows the Canadian template.

It could start with Vermont, where a sympathetic governor and Democratic-leaning legislature just might be on the verge of passing the country’s first true single-payer bill.

If it works there, Robbins said, it could work anywhere.

“I really think that a single-payer system passed at the state level could be a model,” she said.