By Paul Krehbiel

Over 300 health care reform leaders and activists from across the U.S. met in Oakland in August at a National Strategy Conference to develop plans to bring high quality, affordable health care to all residents. Three national single-payer organizations, Healthcare-NOW!, Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Healthcare, and One Payer States (a 26-state network focusing on achieving single-payer healthcare in states) met together for the first time in a joint conference. Most sessions were held at the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union, Local 6 Union Hall; others were held at the near-by California Nurses Association.

One highlight was an update from Vermont, the only state where single-payer advocates have won so far. Activists there won passage of a single-payer bill, Act 48, in the Vermont State Legislature in 2011. It mandated that Vermont’s new health law must provide universal high quality health coverage, cost containment, one publicly funded payer of all bills, and other features, but it did not include the details.  Those details are being worked out now.

Opponents in the for-profit health care industry are trying to undermine and render void key elements of the new Vermont law.  The single-payer forces are keeping together the huge grassroots movement that provided the muscle to pass Act 48, in order to put pressure on wavering legislators to write the best possible detailed language into the new law.

The lessons from the Act 48 campaign are important for single-payer organizers all across the country, including here in CA where there’s an active single-payer movement.

Matt McGrath of the Vermont Workers Center, which played a key role in the campaign, explained that it was important to get grassroots people involved from the beginning.  “We began by collecting stories from people whose needs weren’t met in our current system.” The organizers took a survey to neighborhoods, trailer parks, low-income communities and learned of horror stories from people who didn’t get care, poor care, and huge bills.

“We then publicized these stories,” McGrath explained, “by holding public events around the state that ‘put the healthcare system on trial.’ At these trials, people told their stories, and the public who came to watch issued a “guilty” verdict of the healthcare system.  “We built the campaign, called ‘Healthcare is a Human Right,’ and leadership around the people most affected,” McGrath said. State legislators took notice, especially when the “trials” were held in their district.

Kesha Ram, a VT State Representative who supported Act 48, told the conference that many in the legislature want to “include dental, long-term care, alternative care, and other benefits,” but opponents are trying undermine the law, she said. “When some tried to exclude immigrants, the Vermont Workers Center, said “No, everyone in.”

Other states that have single-payer movements include Massachusetts, Hawaii, Oregon, New York, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, and others.  This reporter presented an analysis of the CA single-payer initiative ballot campaign in 1994 (which lost by a significant margin), and made suggestions for a campaign that could win in the future.

Other topics included discussion of HR 676, the national single-payer bill in Congress sponsored by Rep. John Conyers; working with Republicans, Democrats and Independents; Legislative Economic Feasibility studies; how to talk about Obamacare; labor-community collaboration; defending the public sector and Medicare; working with small businesses; using social media; and more.  (The website of Physicians for a National Health Plan has a comprehensive summary of the conference.)

Leaders from many important organizations addressed the conference, including Nancy Wohlforth, California AFL-CIO; Dr. Paul Song, CA Physicians for a National Health Plan; Donna Smith, Health Care for All Colorado; Clyde Rivers, National AFL-CIO; David Campos, San Francisco Board of Supervisors; Fernando Gapasin, Health Care for All Oregon;  ; Jim McGee, American Transportation Union;  Rita Valenti, Healthcare NOW! Georgia; Mark Dudzic, Labor Campaign for Single-Payer; David Newby, Wisconsin AFL-CIO; Josh Pechthalt, Calif. Fed. of Teachers; Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, RN, New York State Nurses Association; and John Nichols, The Nation newspaper.

Paul Krehbiel is a member of Labor United for Universal Healthcare, the Los Angeles affiliate of the national Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Healthcare.


PHOTO: Matt McGrath, of the VT Workers Center.

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