Rep. Conyers urges single-payer system

By Laura Ungar for –

Despite resistance from President Barack Obama and some members of Congress, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan said yesterday he’ll keep fighting for a publicly financed, privately delivered “single payer” health-care system that covers all Americans.

“All who are ready to fight for what they believe is right in health care, raise your hand,” he told more than 150 people at the Making Health Care Happen single-payer seminar at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. “You’re not gonna get it without a contest. And I’m looking forward to a contest.”

His talk was one of several planned throughout the country. It was partially funded by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and sponsored by Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan, Kentuckians for Single Payer Healthcare and Physicians for a National Health Program.

Conyers, a Democrat serving his 21st term in the House, introduced a bill nine years ago — and every year since — to expand Medicare so that everyone would be covered regardless of employment, income or health. He said the measure, called H.R. 676, has 77 co-sponsors and the endorsement of more than 4,000 physicians.

But many political leaders and constituents oppose such single-payer proposals, with some expressing fear of big government and the rationing of care. And as the debate heats up nationally, even some who support the concept are saying it may not be politically feasible.

According to an Associated Press report, Obama said at a meeting in New Mexico that if he were building a health-care system from the ground up, he would favor a single-payer system. But he currently favors improving the existing system because many people are satisfied with it, he said.

Conyers said some members of Congress have told him privately that his bill will never pass because of corporate forces. “There’s nothing wrong with the bill,” he said they tell him. “We just aren’t ready for it.”

But Conyers disagreed. “Now is the time!” he said to applause.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd District, who was also at the seminar, said he strongly supports H.R. 676 and Conyers.

“One thing you learn the more you serve with John Conyers is he is always right,” Yarmuth said. “And where health-care reform is concerned, we know he is right.”

But Conyers acknowledged it will be difficult to win more support. In the meantime, he said he would support a compromise bill offering a private insurance option and a strong public option — as long as Congress has a hearing on his bill.

Audience member Edith Kenna of Fort Wayne, Ind., said she doesn’t want a compromise.

Kenna, 62, a licensed clinical social worker, said her entrepreneur son has no insurance. And her 34-year-old daughter, a former kindergarten teacher, is facing the prospect of losing her COBRA insurance after a series of medical problems beginning with severe rheumatoid arthritis that put her in a wheelchair.

As a Conyers aide passed her, Kenna handed him a card with her daughter’s name and said, “She’s gonna die without H.R. 676.”

Costs are growing

About 46 million Americans lack health insurance, and even those who have it often find themselves underinsured. A Courier-Journal investigation last year found that skyrocketing deductibles, premiums and other issues are forcing an increasing number of families to choose between finances and health.

As health-care costs have grown, so has mainstream support for universal health care. Last year the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution in favor of Conyers’ bill. And according to an April New York Times/CBS News poll, 57 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to pay higher taxes so all Americans could have insurance they can’t lose.

But according to research released last year by consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, 84 percent of U.S. companies are either opposed to or “not very supportive of” a universal system such as a single-payer system.

And even some groups that favor covering the uninsured don’t want to go as far as single payer. For example, the Kentucky Medical Association, a professional organization for doctors, passed a resolution that keeps insurance companies in the equation.

In the public’s hands

Conyers said he’s unwilling to let anyone hold him or his bill’s supporters back.

“We have to make a decision: Are we going to get rolled or not?” he said.

At the end of the talk, he said he was leaving for a similar gathering in Rochester, N.Y., and asked if a few people wanted to join him. Kenna said she would.

Dr. Rob Stone, an emergency room doctor from Bloomington, Ind., said he sees the need for health-care reform every day. A couple of summers ago, he said, a man in his late 50s came in complaining of chest pain. Stone said the man told him that the pain had been worse two weeks earlier, but he didn’t see a doctor.

“I don’t have insurance,” Stone recalled him saying. “I was worried about the bill.” As a result, a piece of his heart had died.

Conyers said he’s heard many such stories but added that the future of U.S. health care is in the people’s hands.

“What kind of health-care bill are we gonna get? I’m here to predict you get the kind you deserve, not the kind you oughta have, not the kind you want,” he said. “It all depends on you.”