By Russ Britt
Last update: 7:24 p.m. EST Dec. 7, 2007
LOS ANGELES (MarketWatch) — While health-care reform may play second fiddle to the war in Iraq among voters this election season, it appears that the domestic issue is taking on new life thanks to medical-industry professionals.
An advertisement, due to appear Monday in Iowa newspapers ahead of upcoming caucuses there, calls for a single-payer, national health-insurance plan similar to Medicare, and cites Vice President Dick Cheney’s chronic heart troubles as evidence of its need. It is sponsored by the Oakland, Calif.-based California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.
At the top of the ad, there’s a news story about a recent visit by Cheney to the hospital for treatment of an irregular heartbeat. Underneath, it says: “If he were anyone else, he’d probably be dead by now.”
The ad goes on to note that under the government health-insurance program that covers Cheney, he is not turned away for preexisting conditions or unable to be treated for what an insurance company might label “experimental treatments.”
“There’s a whole set of barriers that he has never faced,” said Michael Lighty, director of public policy for the nurses’ group.
Welcome to the 2008 elections, where medical professionals are turning up the heat in favor of a universal, single-payer system that represents a radical departure from what most of the major presidential candidates are proposing. They know that such a system is a long shot at this point, but the numbers in their camp are growing.
Other medical professional organizations are calling for similar measures to be enacted, or at least discussed. The American Nurses Association, which represents 2.9 million nurses, is pressing for a national plan, as is a group of 14,000 doctors called the Physicians for a National Health Program.
Dr. Quentin Young, co-founder of the physicians’ group, called alternative proposals from other candidates “patch-quilt failed systems that won’t work.”
“What we have now is the problem, not the solution,” he said.
Also for the first time, the American College of Physicians wants the issue to at least be discussed among other alternatives as the nation moves toward some sorts of changes in health care.
The group, which represents 124,000 internal-medicine physicians, isn’t advocating a Medicare-style plan, but at least wants the subject to be broached — a departure from past practices.
“We’re trying to produce a dialogue,” according to spokesman David Kinsman. “We’re saying that what does not work is the status quo.”
Can these professionals succeed in their quest for a national health program? Medical professionals are contributing in record numbers to candidates’ campaigns, so they’re likely to get the ear of at least some of the candidates. The American Nurses Association said that it plans to sit down with all the candidates to discuss the idea.
The doctors and nurses who propose a single-payer plan say that it will cut red tape, eliminate haggling with insurers over what procedures are necessary and allow them to deliver unfettered health care.
Whether this kind of approach will resonate with voters is unclear, but staffers in Cheney’s office, at least, seem to have little patience for the nurses’ advertising strategy.
“I think it’s outrageous and it doesn’t warrant a response,” commented Megan Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the vice president.
But it appears that candidates for next year’s presidential election are unwilling to lean toward these views — at least for now. Currently, the only one that is calling for the same kind of reform is Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a dark horse who lags far behind in the polls.
Leading Democratic contenders Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, all advocate a mix of public and private coverage. Clinton and Edwards propose mandatory coverage for all, along with tax credits for those who can’t afford premiums.
Republicans stray even further from the groups’ goals. GOP candidates largely want to let free-market forces determine the future of health care, with only former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani calling for tax credits.
Young, of Physicians for a National Health Program, said that of the three major Democratic candidates, Edwards comes the closest to his organization’s views. But proposals from candidates like Clinton are untenable, he added.
“She is ultimately duplicitous,” he charged. “People are being ripped off, and these liberal Democrats are doing nothing to ease their pain.”
One problem for these stakeholders, though, is that they’re missing a key ally: the powerful American Medical Association.
While some say the AMA has softened its stance in recent years from the Republicans’ free-market approach, it still advocates a mix of public and private programs with tax credits thrown in — much in the vein of the Clinton, Obama and Edwards plans. AMA officials did not return phone calls.
“It is imperative that individuals and families be able to choose what health plan to join,” says an AMA February position paper on health care, posted on the group’s Web site.
Without the AMA’s backing, it will be tough to enact the kind of reform sought by medical professionals. Still, they insist that along with the noise they’re making via the Cheney ads and other efforts, they’re also making progress.
“We’ve moved from being irrelevant to being an undesirable alternative,” according to Young.