Will health care be hijacked?


On July 1, Rep. Betty McCollum hosted a town hall forum on health care reform at the picnic area in St. Paul’s Highland Park.

McCollum, a labor-endorsed DFLer who has advocated for expanded access to health coverage since taking office in 2001, said in her opening remarks that she wanted to hear constituents’ ideas, concerns and suggestions on the complicated issue, and she pledged to follow up – either immediately or at a later date – on any concerns they might have.

But what McCollum hoped would be a civil forum on a timely issue quickly descended into an impassioned shouting match. It was an early indication of what has become a national phenomenon, with anti-reform activists executing a strategy of disruption and distraction at town hall meetings across the country.

Now, labor leaders are worried that such town-hall uprisings will spoil the nation’s best chance at health care reform in decades.

In response to news that President Obama was considering dropping the so-called “public option” for health insurance from the reform bill, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney accused the “usual suspects” of “trying to hijack the reform process.”

Sweeney and other labor leaders pledged to continue working toward an alternative to the high-cost, low-efficiency model private insurance companies are working hard to protect.

“The insurance industry can fool some people into demonstrating against health care reform,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Ray Waldron said. “But most working people can see that health care costs are dragging down the middle class—and we expect Congress to pass real health care reform this fall.”

Fact versus fiction

The opponents of health care reform who showed up at McCollum’s town hall forum last month were not a rag-tag bunch of independently minded activists. Rather, they are part of an increasingly well-organized, well-funded team of activists, organized by two lobbying groups that orchestrated the anti-tax “tea parties” in April, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks.

The lobbyists’ goal, according to several published reports that source the groups’ internal correspondence, is to disrupt the forums, harass reform-minded members of Congress and spread lies about H.R. 3200, the Obama-backed health care bill currently before the House of Representatives.

Some of the lies anti-reform activists are spreading about the bill include:

• It would create “death panels” charged with determining which patients were worthy of medical care or, alternatively, forced euthanasia.
The truth: H.R. 3200 includes a provision, supported by the AARP, to offer senior citizens access to a professional medical counselor for information on preparing a living will and other issues facing older Americans.

• By creating a public health insurance option, the bill effectively eliminates private insurance coverage. This, opponents say, results in “socialized medicine.”

The truth: 47 million Americans, including 9 percent of all Minnesotans, don’t have health insurance. A public option would expand – not shrink – the number of choices available to health care consumers – and force private insurance companies to get their costs under control in order to stay competitive.

• Health care reform will result in rationing.

The truth: Health coverage already is rationed, but it’s health insurance companies that control who gets access to medical procedures and care. H.R. 3200 will stop those companies from denying – or rationing – coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions, or dropping people who get sick from their rolls.

• The health care bill will bankrupt our federal government.

The truth: H.R. 3200 will be fully paid for – meaning it won’t add a penny to the national debt – within 10 years. How? By cutting waste, fraud and abuse within existing government health programs; ending $177 billion in unwarranted annual subsidies to insurance companies; and increasing efficiency by coordinating care and streamlining paperwork.

Putting tea on ice

As the health care debate lingers into the fall, though, the challenge, labor leaders and health care advocates agree, will be cutting through the misinformation and rallying public support behind H.R. 3200.

But the insurance companies aren’t about to give up without a fight. On Aug. 14, anti-reform activists were back at it, descending upon Rep. McCollum’s district offices in St. Paul with talking points, signs and, in one case, even a cow bell.

This time, though, McCollum’s team was ready. Joshua Straka, district director, served the anti-tax activists decaf tea – on ice – and offered to roll tape from the July 1 town hall meeting, where McCollum answered many of the same questions they would go on to ask, for as long as people wanted to stick around and watch.

“There’s a lot of misinformation coming from the media and the Internet about health care,” Straka said. “The Congresswoman is a strong supporter of reforming our health care system, and it’s been the subject of public meetings since she was elected.”

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at www.stpaulunions.org

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