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T.R. Reid is still fighting for universal health care, along with groups across the country

The future of health

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Universal health care advocate T.R. Reid jokes that he's a bad campaign chair. - COURTESY COLORADO CARE YES
  • Courtesy Colorado Care Yes
  • Universal health care advocate T.R. Reid jokes that he's a bad campaign chair.

On Nov. 20, about 50 people gathered at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church to learn about the new battle plan in the fight for universal health care in America.

The event was put on by the local chapter of the Colorado Foundation for Universal Health Care, and the speaker was T.R. Reid, an author and former Washington Post journalist. Reid literally wrote the book on health care — 2010's The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care. The New York Times best-seller examined universal health care systems across the world, finding they were cheaper, more effective and kinder. Reid was also a prominent backer of Colorado's 2016 statewide ballot initiative Amendment 69, also known as ColoradoCare, which sought to bring a Medicare-for-all approach to Colorado. The measure — the first of its kind in the nation — failed, with only about 20 percent voting yes.

But the times are changing. With Donald Trump in the White House, and Republicans controlling Congress, conservatives have been pressured to make good on their longtime promise to repeal Obamacare (otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act) and replace it with something better. Thus far, they have failed (though they are still trying to remove the individual mandate in their tax plan). The plans they have proposed, which would have left millions more uninsured, have been extremely unpopular. Meanwhile, Obamacare, which has long been unpopular, saw a remarkable 55 percent approval rating in an April Gallup poll, and currently has a historically impressive 50 percent approval rating according to Gallup.

"People don't like Obamacare but they certainly liked the Republican plan less," Reid told the Independent in an interview.

That said, Americans have long been wary of turning health insurance over to the government. But Reid says that's silly. "If government doesn't get between you and your doctor, then United Health Care in Minnetonka, Minnesota, gets between you and your doctor and dictates which doctor you can see," he says. "... Public health payment plans are just more efficient and work better."

The proof, he says, isn't just the success of other countries' systems, it's the success of ours, specifically Medicare. "Just about everybody on it will tell you it's the best insurance they ever had," Reid says of Medicare. "You know, I worked for the Washington Post company, and it's a very generous company, very generous, and it took really good care of us in terms of health insurance and Medicare's better than the insurance I had with the Washington Post."

That's interesting, but we wondered what Reid — or that group of 50 people gathered at a church on a Monday night — really planned to do about it. ColoradoCare, after all, went down in flames. And it's hard to imagine a plan for universal care coming out of Washington, D.C., right now. But Reid says plenty of people in states across the county do have a plan — and it's focused on changing the law in states first, just as was done with gay marriage and female suffrage. We spoke to him about what's on the horizon.

Indy: Why do you think voters were so opposed to ColoradoCare?

T.R. Reid: We did several things wrong. First, I think we definitely learned a lesson: Don't make T.R. Reid your campaign chair, because we just got crushed. Second, our plan wasn't perfect, it had a lot of flaws in it and as we were campaigning, those came out. I mean I would go somewhere and say, "Look, if my neighbor is too sick to go to work, or if some kid is in pain and can't go to school, doggone it, I want that kid to get health care." But I could see that people were reading the footnotes in our plan and saying, "Well, wait a minute, I'm going to have to pay" ...

There were definite flaws in our plan, among them, seniors had to pay for our plan, but didn't get any benefits from it ... But the main problem was, we raised $800,000 and the opposition poured in $6.5 million, so they outspent us about eight to one. And, um, they had very clever ads making fun of our plan. And then here was one more, maybe the decisive factor, the resolution we put on the ballot began as follows: "Shall we raise taxes $25 billion in order to ..." And a lot of people thought we lost the minute that became the language of the ballot. You know, people were just not going to spend $25 billion. And the answer to that was, well we're spending over $30 billion on health insurance now to out-of-state insurance companies. But we never had the money to make that point.

Are you guys going to try this again?

Yeah ... After we lost, we went around the state to talk to our volunteers. We had volunteers in I think 60 of the 64 counties. You know, we got 157,000 signatures to put our plan on the ballot. So there were definitely people who liked what we were trying to do. After we lost, a group of us went around the state to meet with our volunteers and tens of thousands of people said. "I want to keep working for universal health care in Colorado" ...

I think there are two possible routes. One is put in legislation to the [state] Legislature to try to advance the cause. And, in that regard, we have written what's called the Colorado Patient's Bill of Rights. I think it's nine proposed bills. And they are bills like the Choose Your Doctor Act, and that says any health care plan sold in Colorado has to let the patient choose the doctor. As you know, currently, insurance companies have these narrow networks where they dictate the hospital and the doctor you can go to. So we're going to put in legislation that says they all have to do what Medicare does, which is cover all doctors, any licensed practitioner. That's one bill. Another is the Why Pay More Act, and that says whenever a hospital or a doctor bills you for a procedure, the bill has to show you what Medicare would have paid for the same procedure. And presumably then people will respond and say, "Why am I paying $36,000 for a hip [replacement] when Medicare pays $1,900 for the same procedure?"

... Different legislators have offered to put in those bills, and here's the thing: They're all gonna lose. Because the hospitals or the doctors will fight them and they'll lose. But that kind of makes our point, that the Legislature is not the place to get this done because it's owned by insurance companies and for-profit hospital companies and drug companies.

... The second plan is to come back on the ballot in 2020. And if we did that there's two crucial points about that idea [usually called the 2020 plan]. One is that the plan would be vastly simpler. Our last plan was quite complicated, we had a 35-page booklet explaining it, you know just about everybody could find something in it they didn't like, so I think next time we will make it much, much simpler. Maybe, for example, one proposal is for a two-sentence ballot initiative. First sentence is: Anyone who needs medical care in Colorado shall have access to a doctor. And the second one is: The Legislature is mandated to effectuate this guarantee by Jan. 1 of, you know, whenever.

Where would the funding come from in this scenario?

That would be up to the Legislature, but presumably, it would come from a tax just like ours.

But they have to pass a tax, I mean there's the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, they can't legally just impose a tax.

Yeah, so they put it on the ballot. But if the people vote for this concept, then everybody should have health insurance. The Legislature has to enact it. I mean, it doesn't solve all the problems — then the Legislature has to go back to the voters and say, "Will you pay for this?" But at least then we have the opportunity to say um, a) the people want this, they voted for it, and b) it's cheaper ...

What year?

In 2020, and the plan is, 10 states put the same measure on the ballot in the same year, and they would be Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New York wants to do it, Ohio and Michigan have talked about it, maybe California. And the theory is then, if it's on in 10 states, this will dissipate the insurance companies' money. You know, they'll fight it in New York and California at great expense, and maybe that would let Colorado or Oregon or Washington slip past, because they wouldn't be able to fight it everywhere ... Almost every state has a group of people who are working for universal health care ... and they've decided the way we're going to get there is state by state. Washington, D.C., can't do it.

The Republicans have, oddly enough, succeeded in making Obamacare more popular. If the Republicans actually repeal Obamacare, angering people who lose their health care or suddenly have to pay far more, do you think that will pave the way for a single-payer system?

Yeah, I think more and more Americans now feel that's the only way to go. And maybe they didn't like it in the past, maybe they don't like it now, but they think it's better than anything else that's been offered. I believe that.


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