Single-Payer Advocates Finally Get Their Say

Montana papers lead the way

Twice this month, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has tossed single-payer advocates out of his finance committee hearings on health reform. The ejections, of course, have give the protestors much more exposure than if if Baucus had simply allowed their voices to be heard. An editorial this week in the Albany Times Union supported giving them a seat at the table, and single-payer advocates will appear tonight on Bill Moyers Journal. Yesterday, Baucus gave them more publicity when some members of the very vocal Single Payer Action group approached him when he drove up to the offices of the Kaiser Family Foundation for a press briefing. Spying the activists waiting to question him, he turned around and drove through a back alley to a rear service entrance.

For months now, Mike Dennison, a Montana-based reporter in the capitol bureau of Lee Newspapers, has been writing about his state’s senior senator, who last year declared in no uncertain terms that a single-payer solution was off the table. Campaign Desk praised Dennison for his good old-fashioned local coverage of a state politician. Judging from the overwhelmingly positive reader e-mails thanking him for his clear-eyed coverage of Baucus, health care, and single-payer systems (including Canada’s), his articles have been well-received.

“I want to fill a void,” Dennison told me. “It’s always mystified me why there’s almost no mention of single-payer. Do the media not know about it?” This week, Dennison reported on the local “knocking-on-doors” campaigns by grassroots groups, including unions and Montanans for Single-Payer, trying to rally the public behind reform.

Montanans also learned more about single-payer this week when one of Dennison’s rivals, John S. Adams, a capitol reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, a Gannett paper, wrote a fine two-part series about single-payer. Competitive newspapering is still alive, at least in Montana.

In the first story, Adams talked extensively with Dr. Marcia Angell, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and as staunch an advocate of single payer as there is. Single-payer groups had asked that Angell be allowed to speak at one of the Senate Finance Committee hearings. She told Adams:

”What I would have said is that the underlying problem with our health care system, the thing that makes it such a mess, is that it is based on seeking profits and not on providing health care.”

In the second story, Angell said: “Single-payer is simply considered not realistic for a politician. The medical industrial complex just won’t permit it.” Adams also talked to other single-payer advocates in an article that took a close look at President Obama’s health-reform rhetoric. He opened his piece with Obama at a New Mexico town hall meeting last week, saying that if he could start from scratch, single-payer might make sense—the same thing he said during the campaign.

Adams ended by noting that, when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2003, Obama said he was a proponent of single-payer. By 2006, when he was running for president, he had changed his mind, saying that while he “would not shy away from a debate about single-payer,” he was not convinced that was the best way to achieve universal health care. Adams interviewed liberal political columnist David Sirota, who told him:

“His political preconditions have been met, he said he would never shy away from the debate, and that’s exactly what the administration via Max Baucus is doing.”

Whether or not that debate is real is another story. Neither Adams nor Sirota quite say that Obama, too, is one of those politicians who dare not cross the medical-industrial complex. Maybe that can be the next big story coming out of Montana.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.