Reps. Ellison, Conyers take single-payer health care to suburbia

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Single-payer health care has the support of a majority of the populace, its supporters say.

Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and John Conyers, D-Mich., hosted a community forum Sunday at the Heights Theatre in Columbia Heights on the United States National Health Insurance Act (HR 676), a bill that would “expand and improve Medicare for all.” The act, synonymous with single-payer health care, would cut costs for both individuals and the government and has the support of a majority of the populace, advocates said. Nevertheless, the bill faces a steep uphill battle, with a likely veto by the president.

“Thank you for coming to be a part and advocate a leader in what is the clearly the most important domestic issue in this country, and that is health care,” Ellison told the crowd. Ellison then introduced a number of speakers who explained the bill, its economic impact and its public support.

Conyers’ legislative aide, Joel Segal, broke down the national health insurance plan for the audience, a packed theater of union members, legislators, members of the Minnesota State Nurses Association, health care advocacy groups and many people for whom the current health care system had failed.

“The main barrier to care in this country is that you don’t have a right to be a patient in the wealthiest country in the world,” explained Segal. “You have to either get a job which has insurance, which is a big problem because a lot of people don’t have jobs, and even if you do have a job you may not be able to afford the insurance, and even if you do get that insurance it’s probably not going to be that good because you’re going to have excessive copays, deductibles and bills at the end,” he said. “What [House File] 676 seeks to do is to eliminate all barriers to care between the patient and the physician. “

The plan outlined in the bill is not incredibly complicated and simply makes the government the sole health insurer. Insurance premiums would be paid in the form of taxes.

When someone is born, he or she is automatically issued a national health insurance card. That person, throughout a lifetime, can visit any hospital, doctor, mental health provider, or treatment center of the individual’s choosing. Physicians and other health care staff are reimbursed within 30 days of services rendered, and that reimbursement is mandated to be at current pay grade which, according to Segal, would result in a raise after the 25 percent cost of working with multiple health plans, formularies and payment systems is eliminated. Hospitals would also receive “global budgets” each year based on previous year’s costs.

“Nothing is going to change except there will be no more stock market, investor-owned doctors’ offices or hospitals,” said Segal.

But how do proponents expect to pay for the plan? First, the Medicare tax on payroll would increase from 1.45 percent to 4.75 percent. Segal says for a modest family income, that amounts to $1,700 to $1,800, less than most families currently pay for health care. The plan also calls for a small tax on sales of stocks and bonds, a small tax on corporate income and a rollback of the Bush tax cuts.

Joel Albers of the Universal Health Care Action Network broke the economics down a bit more. “The amount that is being taken out of your income tax right now for Medicare, MedicAid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program….that amount is actually more than all other countries spend on health care,” said Albers.

And that’s just public spending. “We are paying twice. If we go to a single payer system, We can eliminate the private spending.”

Albers showed the audience slides of public approval for a “Medicare for all” type of system. “Public support for single payer [health care] totally financed by government, well, there is huge public support for this.”

Dr. Lisa Nilles of the Minnesota Universal Health Care Coalition echoed Albers’ statements. In a survey of Minnesota physicians, 64 percent chose a single-payer system when presented with the choice of managed care, health savings accounts or a government-run single-payer system.

“We can provide comprehensive health care for everyone at no increased cost. We need no more studies. This has been shown time and time again at the state and national level, year after year by private public and academic institutions,” said Nilles.

She said that the need outweighs the risks of shaking up the current system, and that she draws from the experience of having practiced medicine in both the United States and Great Britain. “For many people the system works. They manage to have good insurance that truly provides for their needs from cradle to grave, but too often and with increasing frequency people fall through the cracks. “

And the changes, she said, would be minimal. “For those who have great health care and are happy with their coverage, love their doctor and love their clinic: The only thing they would lose in a single-payer system is the name of the insurance company on their card. Instead of reading insurance company ‘X’, it will read United States National Health Insurance,” she said, adding that many fears that people have about a national system are unfounded.

“For those who fear that a system of single-payer financing means more bureaucracy, I submit that there is no way that a single-payer and single-plan system could be as inefficient as the myriad of payers we have now,” said Nilles.

John Kolstad, musician, small business-owner and former candidate for Minnesota attorney general, urged the audience to support the bill for the benefit of small business. Along with property taxes, health care costs are a major burden on small business he said. “This is retarding our economic development in Minnesota and the U.S., and it is also stopping job creation,” said Kolstad. “Of all the bankruptcies caused by health care issues, 75 percent of them had health insurance when the incident began. That’s a frightening statistic.”

Rep. Conyers praised Ellison’s work as a freshman and thanked the speakers and advocates for being there. His speech quickly turned to Iraq and the impeachment of President Bush.

At the end, one audience member spoke about the moral obligation to ensure adequate health care. “Republicans will fight this, and their base is the Christian right. There’s that phrase: ‘What would Jesus do?’ Jesus healed…and for free.”