By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
The actions taken today in the U.S. House of Representatives are as important as any in American history. Whether the United States will join the other 32 developed nations that provide universal health care to its citizens will be decided in the vote on the floor today in the House. The U.S. Senate voted the bill out on Christmas Eve last year, so the House will be working from that draft. When it passes – and I sincerely hope that it does – the Senate will have to give it a final okay, and then the bill will go directly to the President for his signature. Mr. Obama has said the bill is “the single most important step that we have taken on health care since Medicare” was created in 1965.
This issue has long been on the front burner for the National Consumers League. Florence Kelley – NCL’s leader for our first 32 years, thought her greatest accomplishment was the passage in 1921 of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, which for the first time allocated federal funds for health care. Josephine Roche, NCL’s president in the late 1930s, wrote the first universal health care legislative proposal while a member of FDR’s administration. Pieces of her draft laid the groundwork for the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
The legislation is sure to fall short of the goals many of us have for a universal coverage. For example, NCL strongly supported the inclusion of a public option but that was removed under pressure from insurance companies and citizens who claimed they didn’t want “government making health care choices for them.” That seems like a dubious argument because the Medicare program – which provides health care to seniors – is hugely popular – and is a government-run health care program. I’m in the camp that believes that we can improve upon the basic protections this legislation will bring to many Americans and that we need to start somewhere.
The bill includes provisions for state-run insurance exchanges, in which small business and people without employer coverage can buy insurance that would meet new federal standards. The new law would prohibit denial of health care coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions, and Medicaid would be expanded to cover everyone with income at or below 133 percent of poverty level.
As of this writing on the Sunday morning before the vote, they still don’t have the votes to pass. But I’m convinced they will find them. It’s disturbing to read in the Washington Post that angry groups rallied against the bill and hurled epithets against black and gay members of Congress and shouted “Kill the bill.” Historically, the right and the business communities fought every federal social program, using demagoguery and outlandish claims about government takeovers. They fought Social Security, Medicaid, the AMA, minimum wage and hours regulations laws, and used Ronald Reagan to rail against the Medicare law in the 1960s. But our society and our citizens are far better off because these programs were passed, and the vast majority of Americans have come to appreciate their value. I believe they will soon come to feel the same way about universal health care.