Postscript on Single Payer

The San Francisco Chronicle offers some respectability

For months, single-payer advocates have been marginalized by a political establishment which has already defined the boundaries of this round of health reform. For the most part, the MSM have been uninterested in the activities of single-payer groups in California, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. Montana has been an exception; Campaign Desk has pointed out that the state’s newspapers have covered single-payer proposals as well as the words and actions of the state’s senior senator, Max Baucus, who has proclaimed all year that everything is on the table except single payer.

There was a crack of light in the press blackout this week with a fine page-one story in the San Francisco Chronicle by health writer Victoria Colliver. Using a single-payer rally in front of San Francisco’s federal building as the news peg for her story, Colliver led with what seems to be the movement’s publicity strategy—demonstrations and civil disobedience. Noting that the groups planned more demonstrations, she quoted single-payer activist Russell Mokhiber, who said “It’s the only way—direct confrontation with the people who are blocking what the majority of the American people want.”

Colliver’s piece was fair, balanced, and pretty thorough for a newspaper story these days. She clearly explained how a single-payer system would work—something that is missed in most blogosphere stories—and she described that the option currently on the table is a form of “single-payer lite”—some kind of government-administered plan that people could purchase as an alternative to coverage from a commercial carrier. She also reported that political realities meant that single-payer proposals were unlikely to become law this year, but noted that polls show support for the concept among the public and physicians.

She told readers about Baucus ejecting thirteen single-payer advocates from his hearings in early May; the advocates were later arrested. Her story ended with a quote from one of them, DeAnn McEwen, a Long Beach, Calif., nurse who said she felt compelled to speak out about the lack of single-payer voices at the table. “At that point, I felt I couldn’t be silent anymore because it was like I was seeing a gag, a hand covering the mouth of a victim,” she said.

This week, single-payer advocates finally got to meet with Baucus, who admitted he made a mistake. “I should have left it (single payer) on the table, front and center with everything else,” he told them. He said he would use his office to try to get the charges dropped against the protestors and tossed reform back to the president, saying Obama wanted a “big win” on health care. The advocates asked him to hold a hearing on single payer, but Baucus said time was short. According to a Daily Kos posting by the California Nurses Association, he said he would “think about” whether he would co-sponsor a hearing with Sen. Chris Dodd. The group also asked that the Congressional Budget Office do a financial analysis of the single-payer legislation that has already been introduced. He did not promise to have them do so.

Politico reported that the “virtual shut-out has emboldened the movement.” Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, vowed “to turn up the heat,” and said that “women did not get the right to vote by voting on it.” Whether there will be more press coverage remains to be seen, of course.

DeMoro’s reference to the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements was an astute observation. As Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff reported in their definitive book, The Race Beat, media coverage of the civil rights movement also started slowly and moved into the mainstream as the movement, too, became emboldened. It wouldn’t hurt for journalists committed to thoroughly covering health reform well to take a look at what Roberts and Klibanoff had to say.

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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.