Paul Jay speaks to Roger Hickey, Co-Director of the Campaign For America’s Future, about Obama’s health-care reform. Hickey says that as the Senate is working on formulating Senator Max Baucus’ reform, “this is the time for Americans to weigh in with their representatives and people like Baucus, to let them hear that they insist on a public plan.” Responding to whether Obama is going to push for a public option, Hickey says, “I’m not going to sit and wait for Obama to fight for this thing; I’m organizing a movement to fight for this thing. So we can sit here and speculate about how strong Obama is going to be in the clutch. I hope he’s strong. But the way to influence every politician is to get out there where the votes are.”
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network, coming to you from Washington, DC. We’re talking about the American health-care-reform debate, trying to make some sense of what’s on the table. As we said in the end of our last segment, the devil’s in the details. So, to help us understand this devil, we are joined by Roger Hickey. He is the co-director of the Campaign For America’s Future, an advocacy group promoting progressive economic change. So, good luck promoting progressive economic change in Washington these days. We were promised a lot of it, but if we look—.
ROGER HICKEY, CO-DIRECTOR, CAMPAIGN FOR AMERICA’S FUTURE: Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
JAY: Yes, we can. Well, let’s see if we can. So, at the hearings, Senator Baucus has been negotiating sort of publicly more or less with the insurance companies, and he’s come up with a plan which I’m trying to understand. And I actually can’t quite understand it, ’cause it seems so far from what we were promised in the election campaign. So, if I understand it correctly, Baucus is proposing that there be some kind of an exchange where people can go and buy health insurance from private companies. There’ll be some regulation saying that insurance companies have to sell to anybody, no matter what their health condition is, and there’ll be some other kinds of conditions. But what I didn’t see in Baucus’ exchange is a public health plan. So am I missing something here?
HICKEY: Well, it’s important to know that this is just hypotheticals at this point; this is not a finished bill. And, again, I repeat, this is the time for Americans to weigh in with their representatives and people like Baucus, to let them hear that they insist on a public plan. There is [are] 31 members of the US Senate who have signed a statement saying, “We won’t support health reform without a public insurance option within that exchange.” The exchange is a perfectly reasonable thing. If you’re going to impose some standards on private health insurance and decide which ones play and which ones are excluded from the system, and insurance exchange is a good vehicle. We are simply saying, and Baucus actually said in an earlier white paper, there should be a public insurance option within that set of choices. Baucus understands the value of that; his staff certainly does. If you have a public insurance plan like Medicare available to everybody, then you have the ability to change the way medicine is practiced. It doesn’t have to be all about overhead and all about marketing; it can be about new forms of health care that keep people healthy instead of paying them for each procedure. So there is a crucial time period that has already started where Americans need to weigh in with the Congress, and especially the Senate, to say we want to make sure that there’s something else besides private insurance on offer here.
JAY: Well, as we talked about in the first segment, this was at the heart of candidate Obama’s election campaign, a public health-care plan. Now, he kind of turned the leadership of this issue over to the Senate. I don’t think he had to. It could have been more led from the White House. He could have been out championing a public health-care plan the way he’s been championing his stimulus package and Afghanistan and various other initiatives, but he said, “Okay, you guys take a lead on this.” But now that the lead seems to be going away from what he promised, isn’t it time for, if you want, people to demand that President Obama stand up for what he promised in the election campaign?
HICKEY: Sure. And the coalition that I’m part of, Health Care for America Now, is saying that to President Obama and to every member of the US Senate.
JAY: What’s he saying to you?
HICKEY: Well, he’s basically saying what Roosevelt said to early New Dealers and labor activists: I agree with you, but don’t make me do it.
JAY: But why? He’s fighting for other parts of his program. Why not fight for this one?
HICKEY: Listen, this is a new president. He’s getting his legs. I’m not going to sit and wait for Obama to fight for this thing; I’m organizing a movement to fight for this thing. So we can sit here and speculate about how strong Obama is going to be in the clutch. I hope he’s strong. But the way to influence every politician is to get out there where the votes are.
JAY: Alright. So where are you in the Senate? Do you have the votes for this or not?
HICKEY: Well, we’ve got 31 members of the Senate that have said, “We’re not going to support something that doesn’t include a public insurance plan,” and others who are coming along. The important thing for the Democrats to understand is that they don’t need the Republican votes in order to do this, see. They don’t need—Baucus doesn’t need to get [Chuck] Grassley on a deal in the Finance Committee. That only waters it down. So the Democrats have achieved this thing called reconciliation, which means that you can impose rules that don’t allow a filibuster, which means a simple majority can win the day. That means that the Democrats need to focus on unity in the Democratic Party and winning off a couple of Republicans.
JAY: Okay, but I’ve got to get back to this again. I know you want to build a movement to put pressure, but what is the pressure going to be? Certainly pressure on Senate, of course.
JAY: But isn’t there pressure on Obama? Everyone knows that if the White House really leans on people. It has enormous clout in dealing with senators. And if they want to, you know, tighten the screws, they can. Is he behind the scenes tightening the screws? ‘Cause you don’t feel it in the air.
HICKEY: You know, I can’t tell you that. I don’t know. What I know is that President Obama knows that there are 1,000 organizations in Health Care for America Now, that we’re deployed all over the country, and we are asking every politician who was elected in the last election to vote for this thing, and we’re holding people’s feet to the fire, including his. So when he’s pressed, he does say that he thinks a public insurance plan is essential. He did that in New Mexico the other day when he was asked by a single-payer advocate. And I think now is the time that if Americans are appalled at the idea of a health insurance plan that is simply throwing money at the insurance companies without any kind of reform of the way they do business, then we’ve got to really speak out.
JAY: So what do you make of the single-payer campaign? Is it helping or hurting your cause?
HICKEY: Well, the single-payer folks are eloquent at explaining why the health-insurance system in the United States is wasteful and pointing out how corrupt they are in terms of trying to manipulate the legislative system. So we have worked with single-payer groups and demonstrations outside the health-insurance company headquarters and around the country. And I say that this is the time for people to say what they want. If you are a single-payer advocate, you should be out there talking to your member of Congress about that. You may not get what you want, but you’ll have an impact on the thinking of every member of Congress.
JAY: And what do you make of the critique of Baucus? He’s too tied up with these companies, and he’s too concerned with this compromise with Grassley and with the Republicans and with the insurance companies, and he seems to be heading away from a public plan.
HICKEY: My concern is that Baucus understand that he doesn’t need Grassley. He’s been in a minority situation for a long time, and then in a very tiny majority situation. He hasn’t adjusted to the fact that the Democrats have almost 60 votes—and in this case they only need 50 votes.
JAY: But is it a psychological problem? Or is it the fact that he is too tied up with insurance companies?
HICKEY: Listen, Baucus just won reelection. He doesn’t have to build up his war chest for another six years, right? It’s the best possible time for him to exert leadership. And in the past, on the battle over privatization of Social Security, he was a champion of Social Security. So I haven’t given up on Baucus. I’m hopeful that he and Senator Kennedy and others will hold the line for a good public insurance plan. And, of course, the House bill will be better just because the House is more progressive and the people who are writing the bills are. So I’m hopeful that there will be a public insurance plan and a Senate bill and then a House bill. When they get together in conference, it will emerge with an even better bill.
JAY: Okay. So people watching—what do you want them to do?
HICKEY: I want them to call their members of Congress, especially their Senators, right now and tell them: don’t cut the heart out of the Obama health-care plan. The public insurance plan is the heart of the—. And we’re doing that with moveon.org, with Howard Dean, who’s speaking at our big conference at the end of the month. We have a campaign all around the country to send that message to Congress: don’t cut the heart out of the Obama health-care plan.
JAY: And perhaps they should send a message to Obama: Obama, don’t cut the heart out of your own election campaign, ’cause you made some promises.
HICKEY: Don’t do surgery on your own plan [inaudible]
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Roger.
HICKEY: Good to be here.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget, up here there’s a “donate” button—not a donut button, a “donate” button. And if you want not to cut the heart out of The Real News, you’ve got to donate. Thank you.
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