The health care debate in the U.S. Senate has reached the tipping point—namely, that particular place in legislation where it no longer makes any sense to anyone. It's so bad that President Obama has stepped into the fray to try and force the disorganized, dispirited and disappointing Democrats majorities to produce a coherent policy. In the meantime, a group of Oregon physicians calling themselves "Mad as Hell Doctors" is rolling across the country in a "Care-a-van" through 20 states, including Montana this week, as they make the case for what should have been the obvious solution so long ago—single-payer, everyone in, no one out, universal health care.
Those who have followed the devolution of the health care debate continue to scratch their heads in sheer wonderment that Montana's Sen. Max Baucus has been able to hopelessly wind health care reform around the axle of the Senate Finance Committee.
Starting with a white paper he produced months ago, Baucus dribbled away precious time and momentum by watering down even the modest reforms envisioned in his original paper in a fruitless attempt to gain what he believed was the key to success—legislation that would garner the support of Republicans as well as Democrats. Under Baucus' dubious leadership, health care reform morphed into health insurance reform and now, with a proposal almost everyone hates, has become little more than a mandate to force everyone to buy health insurance or pay a fine as high as $3,800 per family. Those in control at the start, the insurance companies, big pharmaceuticals and what has come to be called the "medical-industrial complex" remain totally in control at this point in the game.
Viewed kindly, Max's effort was a total failure. Viewed more realistically, it left Democrats with little or nothing to offer the public during their August recess and may well have set the stage for massive Democrat losses in the mid-term elections. Even worse, opponents of health care reform swarmed town meetings across the nation in huge numbers, outraged by the myths of what they call "Obama-care" even though no final plan yet exists. Thanks to Baucus' massively destructive and hugely ineffective strategy, the death knell may already have been sounded for any hope of a second Obama term in the White House as liberals grind their teeth in frustration while Republicans and their increasingly angry right-wing allies, smelling blood in the water, continue to rally.
It is against this backdrop that the Mad As Hell Doctors left their families and practices in Oregon to travel across the country with their simple message of universal health care, hoping to convince citizens to back real health care—not insurance—reform in America.
"We're mad as hell because our health care system is run by people who profit from illness" says Dr. Paul Hochfeld, lead Mad As Hell doctor and producer of the documentary, Health, Money and Fear. "The rest of the civilized world has test-driven single-payer and it works. But elected officials in America won't even allow a discussion."
To its credit, the House of Representatives has actually produced two bills that hold some promise of real reform. By far the most progressive legislation is embodied in HR 676, which continues to gain endorsements across the nation since it would put in place a national single-payer system. The measure was supposed to have been "scored" during the August recess—meaning it will be analyzed by the fiscal budget office for costs and benefits—but so far, that analysis has not been forthcoming. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a weak proponent in the menagerie of leading health care reformers, has promised HR 676 will have a full hearing in the House.
The next most progressive bill is HR 3200, which was improved this week via an amendment that will allow states to set up their own single-payer systems. Far down the line is the so-called "public option" to buy health insurance through a government run plan. Unfortunately, even this is now being downplayed by the White House and has already been written off by Baucus due to Republican opposition. But Republicans aren't the only ones who dislike the charade of reform couched in terms of insurance rather than care.
"The public option is a trap," says Hochfeld. "It sounds very reasonable, but the problem with it, no matter what the final bill looks like, is that it will continue to allow private medical insurance companies to dictate America's public health policies. And that's just plain wrong."
Another Mad as Hell Doctor, Mike Huntington, lauds a single-payer system.
"People need to understand what single-payer is—and isn't. It isn't socialism, any more than police and fire are socialism. And it doesn't require any more money. Simply put, single payer is a way to take current premium payments that go to a thousand different private insurance companies, and redirect it into a single, public fund that insures everyone. That's all it is. But when we do this, lots of wonderful things happen, not the least of which is to save Americans $500 billion a year starting day one. That's billion—with a 'b.' America needs this information. That's why we're taking the tour."
The doctors hope to turn the tide of the debate by debunking the myths surrounding single-payer, and then convincing members of Congress that such a plan will pay for itself while providing all Americans with comprehensive health care.
If you're among the millions of citizens who are searching for answers instead of political rhetoric—and if Obama's speech doesn't give them to you—the Mad as Hell Doctors are holding a noon rally Thursday at the Capitol and a "Mad as Hell Town Hall" meeting at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Carroll College. You can also go directly to their website (www.madashelldoctors.com), where all the proceedings from their trip will be available for viewing.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.