Washington Sketch: Pain in Vain for Single-Payer Health Care

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Socialism is not dead. It has, however, been confined to a House subcommittee.

Congressional Democratic leaders, as they search for a way to revamp the nation's health-care system, have ruled out a "single-payer" model -- the sort of government-run program that opponents ridicule as socialized medicine. President Obama said it would be a "huge disruption." Democratic lawmakers ignored the single-payer crowd so completely that 13 activists got themselves arrested last month protesting at Senate Finance Committee hearings.

A steam valve was needed for the activists, and yesterday it took the form of the House Education and Labor Committee's subcommittee on health, employment, labor and pensions. Chairman Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) invited in three single-payer advocates (one representing some of those arrested last month) as well as Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), champion of a single-payer bill that is dead on arrival. Each was granted time for steam release:

"There's some notion that universal single-payer health care is off the table," Conyers fumed. "If you take the most popular health-care reform measure and take it off the table, heaven knows what it is you think you're left with."

The audience applauded Conyers. The chairman, rather than using his gavel to silence the demonstration, joined in. "It is a solution that, unlike some in the Senate, I believe belongs on the table."

Geri Jenkins of the California Nurses Association was steamed about America being "the only nation on Earth that barters human life for money." Walter Tsou of Physicians for a National Health Program hissed about how "our profit-driven system kicks millions of Americans in the gut and leaves them both jobless and uninsured."

A line of spectators -- most of them single-payer advocates -- snaked around the corner of the hallway in the Rayburn House Office Building outside the committee room. Most of them were sent to an overflow room. But the committee's Republicans, recognizing that the hearing was really an exercise in blowing off steam, decided against putting up a fight. Only two GOP members bothered to question the witnesses. After a mid-hearing recess for a vote, not one Republican came back to ask questions. "As minority members return, they'll be welcomed into question time," Andrews offered in vain as he went from Democrat to Democrat.

"I'm a little surprised to see it on this subcommittee's agenda," said John Kline (Minn.), the ranking Republican on the panel. "President Obama and Democratic leaders, as I understand it, have been very clear and very public in rejecting the notion of single-payer, and frankly, I'm glad that they have."

With Republicans declining to take the bait, the task of arguing with the angry single-payer crowd fell to a witness, David Gratzer of the conservative Manhattan Institute. Gratzer cited failures of universal health care in his native Canada ("According to the Ontario government's own guidelines, three-quarters of patients requiring urgent cancer surgery don't get it in a timely manner") and counseled against "the temptation of single-payer."

Democrats on the panel countered with defenses of Canadian-style health care. "Ninety-seven percent of the people in Canada said that they wouldn't trade their health-care plan," said Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.).

But nobody had as much steam to blow off as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the left-wing former presidential candidate, described by the chairman as "among the most fierce and articulate advocates of single-payer."

Kucinich was definitely fierce, if not entirely articulate, as he directed his rage at the bespectacled scholar.

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