Senate speech heralds a new social movement
by Margaret Flowers and Andy Coates
This week the sincere effort of millions of people across the nation once again proved effective in the face of determined opposition from the White House and Congress, as single payer health reform reached another milestone in its historic journey.
When the Senate initiated its debate on health insurance reform, Senator Bernie Sanders offered a single-payer amendment, with co-sponsors Sherrod Brown and Roland Burris. Initially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid skipped over it, allowing other amendments to come to the floor instead.
But nationwide events on International Human Rights Day, the delivery of paper “bodies” to the senate offices, non-violent civil disobiedience including nine arrests at Senator Schumer’s office, and hundreds of thousands of emails and phone calls and faxes to the Senate evidently changed Reid’s mind.
When Sanders introduced his amendment the Senator from Oklahoma, Dr. Coburn, rose according to the rules of the Senate to insist that the bill be read in full. It was estimated that reading the 767-page bill would take days and stall the Senate agenda.
We wondered: Could this be an unexpected gift? If Senator Lieberman could make an intransigent stand on behalf of the insurance companies, would Sanders make a stand on behalf of the people’s health?
Reading the bill would prompt our movement to swing into action yet again. We would invite the nation to tune in to C-SPAN to hear how a national single payer health system would provide comprehensive high-quality health care to all citizens. Yet Coburn’s maneuver had its effect.
Majority Leader Reid demanded that Sanders withdraw the amendment, for the Senate timetable leading up to Christmas could not be delayed. Besides insurance reform, there was the pressing issue of funding the wars. Within 3 hours Sanders agreed. In return he had 30 minutes on the floor.
Sanders’ speech was riveting. He spoke the words that we have been waiting to hear for so long. He spoke about the beauty and simplicity of Medicare for All. He spoke about having the courage to stand up to the medical-industrial complex which profits at the expense of human suffering.
Most importantly, Sanders spoke about the national movement for single payer being led by nurses, doctors, medical students, faith and labor organizations and people across the land of all backgrounds and beliefs. He declared that this strong movement is not going away and he announced that we will succeed.
So we will remember December 16th, 2009 as a turning point in the struggle for health care justice. Single payer started this year “off the table.” But the accumulating efforts of millions of people delivered it to the floor of the United States Senate.
To win single-payer health reform it will take many more speeches on the floor of Congress. And the only force that will propel Congress forward is a great social movement. In 2009 we have seen that movement rising up – and getting results.
Every day more people see that an effective and just health system is already at hand: a single-payer national health program modeled on the Medicare system. And every day that the White House and Congress delay single-payer reform, people suffer needlessly and die preventable deaths. Yet the Senate blunders on, with a colossal gift to the insurance industry.
It is time for the health of human beings to prevail. It is time to end the insurance cartel. Please join us us as we continue forge the movement that will win Medicare for All.
Onward to single payer.
Margaret Flowers is a pediatrician in Baltimore, co-chair of the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) and PNHP Congressional Fellow. Andy Coates is an internist in Albany, secretary of the Capital District (NY) chapter of PNHP and co-chair of Single Payer New York.
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