Baucus Watch, Part IX

The senator ejects single-payer advocates—again

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus holds the keys to health care reform; any health care legislation must pass through his committee. So what he says or doesn’t say is important to those following the twists and turns of the congressional effort to fix our health care system. This is the ninth of an occasional series of posts on the senator’s pronouncements and how the media has covered them. The entire series is archived here.

Single-payer advocates tried again yesterday to be heard at another Senate Finance Committee hearing on health reform options. Again, chairman Max Baucus indicated he didn’t want them there. The topic of this hearing was how to pay for reform, and the witness list included various organizations with strong views (or expertise) on the subject, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the AFL-CIO, and the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. Michael Jacobson, the long-time executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose specialty is food and nutrition, was also there. Maybe Jacobson was invited for diversity.

Single-payer proponents had asked that Dr. Marica Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and author of a popular book, The Truth About the Drug Companies, or Dr. Steffie Woolhandler of the Physicians for a National Health Program be allowed to speak. Advocates had also tried to get New York Sen. Charles Schumer to help them, but it appears things didn’t work out politically.

The Washington Times reported that several protestors stood up and shouted such slogans as “no more blue crosses and double crosses.” Like last week, protesting the exclusion of single-payer supporters from the table was apparently too indecorous a thing for the Senate, so Baucus had five demonstrators removed from the hearing room. They were arrested in the hallway. As the meeting came to order, twenty-five nurses dressed in red hospital scrubs stood in silence, with their backs turned to the chairman, and left the room. The Times noted that the audience applauded.

Baucus had this to say:

Believe me, we hear you. I will meet with anyone who wants to meet. We’ve got to work with what we’ve got. We cannot go to a single payer system, but that’s not going to work in this country.
Once the protestors were gone, the chairman turned to the day’s business—figuring out how to pay for subsidies people will need if reform legislation requires them to buy health insurance. (Some 85 percent of the uninsured will need such help because they can’t afford policies on their own.) While all this was going on, health care lobbyists were talking to Roll Call, which reported that they were praising Sen. Baucus “for soliciting the concerns of private industry—something many don’t believe will be the case in the House.” An anonymous Democratic lobbyist told Roll Call that “the Senate committees have at least optically let in the stakeholders and that that has not happened at the House level.” He said that, when it comes to the House, there’s a “realization across the sectors that we’re not going to have our day in court…. They’re really not all that interested in what we have to say.”

Is the House ready to turn the tables—so to speak—on the business lobbyists and exclude their voices like the Senate has done to single-payer advocates? We’re counting on the press to keep an eye on this one.

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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.