Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee Takes Single-Payer Health Care Mainstream, Unanimously Endorses It

If you are a single-payer advocate (full disclosure: I am), Lancaster Pennsylvania had a surreal tinge to it this past weekend. Fellow advocates were converging upon the Host Hotel and Conference center from as far away as Erie along with Democratic State Committee people, undaunted by a near-record snow fall and seemingly unconcerned about how they would get home again, or when.

The setting was the Winter Meeting of the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee, hardly a glamorous affair, but this weekend held out the possibility for an historic breakthrough in the long and often frustrating (critics and naysayers might even say futile) battle to bring universal healthcare to Pennsylvania, and after that to the entire United States of America. Tommy Douglas had pulled it off for our neighbors to the North more than a half a century earlier en route to being voted the “greatest Canadian” of all time for bringing single-payer healthcare to Canada, beginning with his home Province of Saskatchewan. The United States remains the only advanced industrialized nation in the world without universal healthcare for its citizens. Why not make it unanimous, and why not start in Pennsylvania where our very democracy was born? Those were the kinds of thoughts circulating through the heads of many of the people gathered in Lancaster last weekend.

It had been a good year for Single-Payer in Pennsylvania already. HealthCare4ALLPA, the organization leading the fight (full disclosure: the author is an unpaid officer of that organization and an unpaid member of the Board of Directors) to enact single-payer healthcare in the Keystone State. Our Bill, HB 1660 and SB 400 was picking up steam (one blogger, in describing the scope of the bill, observed “you will never see a more comprehensive plan.”), and had been endorsed by City Councils in Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reading, West Reading, and Wilkes Barre, as well as by the Allegheny County Council. Together those councils represent more than 3 million people, about a quarter of the population of Pennsylvania. A study of the cost of employee healthcare benefits paid by the combined governments and school boards within our state had documented a savings of nearly $2.3 billion dollars if the bill werer passed, and the study was getting noticed. Our quest for funds to commission an Economic Impact Study that would validate the benefits of instituting our bill were beginning to bear fruit. In October more than a thousand people — primarily from all over Pennsylvania, but augmented by advocates from Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio and even Washingtron State who journeyed to Harrisburg in a show of solidarity — gathered in the Capitol Rotunda on a Tuesday workday morning to demonstrate for the passage of our bill. Speakers included half of the Baucus Eight; Wendell Potter, the former Cigna head of Communications turned Whistleblower and healthcare reform advocate; Donna Smith, one of the stars Michael Moore’s “SiCKO,” and now community organizer and legislative advocate for the California Nurses Association; Kate Michelman, former President of NARAL; Bill George, President of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; Walter Tsou, former Philadelphia Health Commissioner; members of the State Legislature; union leaders; community leaders; church leaders, and more. Rally Co-Sponsors included The American Medical Student Association (AMSA); the California Nurses Association; Healthcare NOW; Keystone Progress; OpEd News; the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; the Pennsylvania Alliance of Retired Americans; the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP); the Pennsylvania Council of Churches; the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters; Physicians for Social Responsibility; Pennsylvania and Philadelphia National Organization of Women (NOW); Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP); Physicians for Social Responsibility; Progressive Democrats of America (Healthcare NOT Warfare Campaign). Et al. This rally demonstrated that single-payer healthcare was no minority fringe movement. It had gone mainstream. The rally also received significantly more media attention than the movement was accustomed to (Highlights here and here).

There followed another milestone in the form of hearings before State Senator Don White’s Senate Banking and Insurance Committee on December 16, 2009. This was the first ever, anywhere, single-payer hearing before a Legislative Committee chaired by a Republican with a Republican majority membership. The hearing room was packed, mostly with single-payer advocates. Some journeyed a long distance to view the historic event, including Dr. Margaret Flowers, of Physicians for a National Health Program, a passionate single-payer advocate and Maryland Pediatrician who has suspended her practice to devote herself full-time to campaigning for single-payer reform, including several civil disobedience arrests. Testifying on behalf of the single payer bill was a seemingly odd-couple quartet composed of Chuck Pennacchio, Executive Director of HealthCare4ALLPA and 2006 candidate for the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nomination; Patricia Eakin, an active trauma nurse and President of Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP); Dwight Michael, physician and co-owner, Gettysburg Family Practice and self-described lifelong conservative Republican; and Dave Steil, a former eight-term Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and an original sponsor of HB 1660. The hearing can be viewed in its entirety here, but Chairman White’s closing statement summed up the event quite well: ” We made progress today. We took a step today. But there are still a lot of questions and a lot of political realities to deal with. And with that I truly, truly do appreciate all of you taking the time to come in and to share with us some very very important information” “There were some tough decisions involved in this. There were certain people that did not really think that we should hold this forum… I think this was positive. I think this was a good dialogue and it was for the most part bi-partisan which is unusual in Harrisburg. …We’re good down here in Harrisburg at being critical and stonewalling, but this is a step, I hope, in a direction where we truly can work together to solve what I think is an enormous problem, and with each passing year becomes a bigger and bigger burden for everyone, everyone. I thank you very much… I think it was positive, and your feedback will not be wasted. This will carry on to further discussion… for now we will adjourn.”

Perhaps emboldened by the progression of positive developments, some members of the Democratic State Committee sympathetic to the single-payer cause came up with an exciting but perhaps risky plan. The Winter Meeting of the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee was approaching. Why not set in motion a resolution endorsing the single-payer legislation that the 301-member State Committee could vote on when they met in Lancaster on February 5th and 6th, 2010? The Resolution was prepared and presented to the Committee Leadership for its consideration. It was titled “Endorsement of the Family and Business HealthCare Security Act.

After detailing the benefits to Pennsylvania if the measure passed it noted that “Whereas, the passage of this legislation would provide a model for the U.S. and would attract business to Pennsylvania; THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that Pa. State Democratic Committee calls upon all the entire PA legislative delegation to endorse the funding of an Economic Impact Study of the bill and to support the passage of SB400/HB1660 at the earliest opportunity; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this resolution shall be transmitted to all PA. County Commissioners, row officers,the entire PA legislative delegation and to the Governor of Pennsylvania.”

The tension mounted when it was announced that the Meeting would include a “Roast and Toast in Honor of Governor Rendell,” featuring special guest, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That insured heightened event visibility as well as press coverage.

On January 22nd a letter was sent to every State Committee person that said in part: “It is an honor and pleasure to request your support for Pennsylvania’s nation leading health care reform bill, the Family and Business Health Security Act (SB 400 and HB 1660). You will be presented with the opportunity to endorse the resolution for this first in the nation state single payer bill this weekend.” The letter was jointly signed by State Senator Michael O’Pake (a co-sponsor of the bill); Chuck Pennachio, PhD; and Walter Tsou, MD, MPH.

The stage was set. Excitement and apprehension abounded as supporters of the resolution were both thrilled at the opportunity and nervous about the outcome.

The first indication that it would be a momentous weekend came Friday evening, and no one was particularly expecting it. It came in the form of a Candidates Forum presented by the Women’s Caucus. The forum included all five announced candidates for the Democratic Gubernatorial nomination. The second question addressed to the panel was posed by Cindy Purvis, President of HealthCare4ALLPA: “The Pennsylvania General Assembly is working towards passage of a single-payer healthcare bill for PA. Governor Rendell has said that if such a bill were to come to his desk he would sign it into law. Where do you stand on single-payer healthcare?”

None of the five candidates rejected single-payer out of hand. State Auditor Jack Wagner said “I basically support single-payer healthcare,” but he demurred at specifically answering the question. State Senator Anthony Williams said “I have no problem with the consideration and passage of a single-payer system,” but he stopped short of committing to signing the bill. The other three candidates were less equivocal.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel said ” As Governor I would sign a single-payer bill.” Suggesting that it would be difficult to pass the legislation he added that “I will do everything in my power to move [single-payer] forward” We do need healthcare extended to all Pennsylvanians.”

Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty said “Yes, I would support a single-payer system” adding that he sees his own constituents “wait” for needed healthcare because they can’t afford it. “They wait. They wait too long. If we are to be a true progressive State and a State that thinks ahead, we need to change our healthcare system and have people have access to quality healthcare” The single-payer system will allow [that].”

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato responded “Yes. If a bill came to my desk for a single-payer system I would sign it,” adding that the current system left much to be desired, was much too expensive, and commenting that when three private insurance companies recently submitted bids to Allegheny County the three bids were nearly identical in price.

That wasn’t all. By Saturday morning it seemed as if almost everyone in attendance was sporting a “Vote for the Single-Payer Resolution” button. Congressman Joe Sestak, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, was telling this writer and others that he supports state single-payer, and renewed an earlier promise to introduce a bill in the House of Representatives shielding Pennsylvania from an ERISA challenge if it enacts single-payer legislation (Senator Arlen Specter has made a similar pledge for a Senate ERISA-Shield bill). Sestak also promised to help secure grant funding to pay for an Economic Impact Study.

Saturday morning the regional caucuses of State Committee people convened, and one-by-one they expressed overwhelming support for the single-payer resolution. When it finally came time for the Committee to meet and vote the result was almost anti-climactic. Jack Hanna, the Chair of the Rules Committee said that there that there was “great concensus in support of this resolution” and urged that the entire membership be permitted to consider it.” Democratic Chair T.J. Rooney shepherded the resolution to the floor, and in seconds it was over. The resolution was passed by acclamation.

HealthCare4ALLPA Executive Director Chuck Pennacchio said “Not only does Pennsylvania now have the Democratic Party on board with Single Payer healthcare for all. “We also have the promised signature of our governor and the active support of Republican and Democratic leaders in both the State Senate and State House.” He added: “Pennsylvania is clearly “ground zero’ for cost-saving, life-enhancing, job-creating, quality, comprehensive, publicly-funded, privately-delivered, healthcare for all. Once PA adopts the proven single payer solution, our neighboring states will move rapidly to adopt the same answer, and congress will quickly follow suit.”

There can be little doubt that this was a huge step forward toward the passage of single-payer, comprehensive healthcare in Pennsylvania. The passage of HB 1660/SB 400 is now in sight.

What is in doubt is when the media, which was present in substantial numbers at the Committee meetings in Lancaster, will decide that single-payer healthcare is news. The endorsement by the Gubernatorial candidates and the unanimous vote of the State Committee was conspicuously absent from virtually all mainstream coverage of the State Committee Meetings.

Jerry Policoff has been an advertising executive most of his career with a long-time interest in progressive politics and journalism. His current primary goal is to help bring single-payer healthcare to Pennsylvania and the country.