Who Will Be at the Table? Part VIII

Baucus evicts single-payer advocates from his hearing

During the campaign, Barack Obama promised his cheering crowds that, when he rolled up his sleeves to work on health care, he would “have insurance company representatives and drug company representatives at the table. They just won’t be able to buy every chair.” Now is a good time to look at just what kind of seats special interest groups will have at Obama’s table and what they’re doing to bring the public around to their ways of thinking. This is the eighth of an occasional series of posts that will analyze their activities and how the media are covering them. The entire series is archived here.

Single-payer advocates are definitely not at the table, and health care reform is getting nasty. This week, Sen. Max Baucus, whose Finance Committee holds the keys to health care reform, called the Capitol police to eject single-payer advocates from his roundtable discussion. The advocates were protesting their exclusion from the committee’s witness list. The event was one of several discussions the Senator has been holding to let stakeholders talk about which route reform should take.

The fifteen witnesses read like a Who’s Who of health reform bigwigs—representatives from the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation, the National Federation of Independent Business, Families USA, AARP, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the New America Foundation, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, the SEIU, the National Governors Association, and a law professor from George Washington University. The Kaiser Family Foundation got two spots on the witness list. It’s fair to say that this cast of characters has been seen many times before—at committee hearings and in the backrooms of the Capitol, where the deal-making has begun.

Single-payer reps have been marginalized since the beginning of this round of reform, and they’re mad about it. At first, the President did not invite them to his summit. Only when they threatened a protest in front of the White House did they get a last-minute invite. Tuesday they got their chance to protest, and eight single-payer supporters stood up, one by one, to say their piece. “We need to have single payer at the table,” one said. As they stood, police removed them from the room.

“It made me physically ill to see Maryland pediatrician Margaret Flowers cuffed like a criminal and pushed out the door as the Senators waited to begin their staged roundtable discussion,” wrote Donna Smith of the California Nurses Association on the Web site of the Physicians for a National Health Program. Smith observed that not one senator defended the protestors, or asked that they be given a chance to speak.

A YouTube video showed Baucus trying to maintain order, calling the protestors’ comments inappropriate and urging others not to stand up. Finally, the chairman said that he “deeply, deeply respects the views of members of the audience.” He added that single-payer is an option supported by many, and that people in Montana also share that position. He also said there were other approaches he respected, and he was trying to determine “the best option.”

The protest didn’t get much MSM pick up—the AP moved a short story on its wires, reporting that “when one protestor shouted ‘we want a seat at the table,’ Baucus responded ‘We want police.’” But the news traveled quickly on the Internet.

If the pols aren’t keen on seating single-payer folks at the table, neither are some of the Third Way health care reformists named on the Finance Committee’s witness list—those who favor a pragmatic, centrist position that neither qualifies as single-payer nor the conventional Republican nostrums of tax credits and personal responsibility.

This has long been evident to us at CJR and to Newsday columnist Saul Friedman, who for months has been questioning the single-payer embargo. A prominent health care blogger wrote to CJR, saying that single-payer should be excluded from the discussion because “single-payer advocates don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) the economics of health care.”
“I think we should avoid giving single-payer too much ink,” she said. “Single-payer won’t happen—not now. Their refusal to accept that fact is muddying the waters.”

John Rother, AARP’s chief lobbyist, told Saul Friedman:

Folks who oppose the Obama approach on the grounds that it’s not ‘good enough’ are just playing into the opposition. We can’t afford that. I certainly hope you recognize the need to get something important done on health reform this year, and won’t join the opposition.

Journalists don’t take kindly to censorship, or attempts at censorship. That’s not what we’re about. For more than a year, Campaign Desk has observed that the health reform debate has been too narrow; that the same sources are quoted again and again. We have urged the press to be more inclusive of other voices, even if politicians aren’t. Health reform may or may not pass this year, but all Americans must have their say. Democracy is messy. Stifling dissent is just not cool.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on health reform, click here.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.