Archive for the ‘Congress’ Category

Is the Health Care Reform Act a Civil Rights Act?

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on March 23rd, 2010

59971869Should we consider the health care reform act, which President Obama signed into law today to be a civil rights act? There is good reason to do so. Though the Act is far from perfect, it does represent a commitment by Congress to expand access to a fundamental human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including . . . medical care.” Martin Luther King called access to medical care a civil right. Though our Constitution does not include a right to health care (or any other substantive economic rights), it does give Congress the authority to create such rights. And, in a speech after the passage of the Act, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked the Declaration of Independence’s statement that all people are guaranteed a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Before the vote, Pelosi and other congressional leaders marched through protesters hurling racial epithets, an act that self-consciously harkened back to civil rights demonstrations of the past. The Act falls within the tradition of Congress enforcing the rights of social citizenship – economic rights that are essential preconditions to one’s ability to exercise other civil and political rights.

Strangely, opponents of the Act also think the Health Care Reform Act is a civil rights act, and argue that this is a reason to oppose it. In February, Rush Limbaugh called the Act a “civil rights act,” a “reparations” bill which people should oppose. Last week, Newt Gingrich compared the Act to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguing that Obama’s support of the Health Care Reform Act would wreck the Demcratic party like Lyndon Johnson’s support of the 1964 Act did.

How ironic! I have always thought of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as one of the great moments in American history. I also thought that as a society we had achieved a consensus that civil rights were a good thing. What could Gingrich possibly mean by his critique? Johnson was re-elected by a landslide in the fall of 1964, and he relied on that mandate to push through the Medicare Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act the next year. When Gingrich says the 1964 Act wrecked the Democratic party, could he be referring to the fact that after passage of the Civil Rights Act, many of the pro-segregationist southern Democrats became Republican, eventually turning the South from a solid Democratic block to the solid Republican block we have today?

If so, why would Gingrich want to remind us of the southern Republican party’s roots in segregationism and racism? It’s hard not to see a connection between Limbaugh and Gingrich’s remarks and the racial slurs hurled by protestors against the African American and Latino members of Congress on Sunday. Like Congress’ tradition of expanding human rights in acts like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Social Security Act and the Medicare Act, there is an equally strong tradition of using race baiting as a tactic in American politics. One of the vestiges of segregation in our society is the racial disparity that still exists in our health care system. If this act helps to remedy this disparity, then it truly is a civil rights act.

The Public Option

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on September 30th, 2009

The public option took a shot to the kidney yesterday.  The punch was hard and it was not fair, but it is just a part of the game.  The public option may be getting a standing eight-count in boxing parlance, but it should not be counted out.  In the next several weeks, the pressure will continue to build for a public option.  Eventually, the House of Representatives will pass a bill with a public option.  The Senate may not follow suit, but eventually will have to compromise on some form of a public option.  What form the public option will take is anyone’s guess.  However, it will be in a form that will allow all sides to claim victory and get on to campaigning for 2010.

The Shoe Thrower and the Flame Thrower

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on September 16th, 2009

Interestingly enough, this week has seen the release of the Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at President Bush on his trip to Iraq last year as well as the continued discussion of the Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) “You lie” lie thrown at President Obama during his address to Congress last week.  Interestingly, the two incidents and their aftermath are instructive.  The shoe-throwing journalisttmpphpIaM5Yi[1] tried to make a point with respect to President Bush’s policy in Iraq and the resulting carnage that resulted.  His conduct was inappropriate, but one can understand that he felt compelled to do something after witnessing the carnage that he had witnessed in his own country.   His disrespect for President Bush, based on President Bush’s policies and their effect, was clear.  Nonetheless, he was, of course, arrested and sent to jail.  Rep. Wilson tossed his lie at President Obama not after witnessing carnage and not after seeing the effects of President Obama’s plans.  He tossed his lie at his president at an inappropriate place at an inappropriate time on an issue about which Wilson was inappropriately confused.  He showed disrespect to President Obama and the office of the President not based on what the president has done and not based on the substance of what the president said as the statement that precipitated the insult was true.  Rather, Wilson showed supreme disrespect for President Obama because he did not like what the president said and, I fear, because of who the president is.  The political price for Rep. Wilson’s actions as measured by the regard in which the public and his fellow legislators hold him should be significant.  However, almost certainly, the price will be a pittance.

Health Care – Now?

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on September 10th, 2009

It’s been quite a week. I watched folks marching in the Labor Day parade carrying “Health Care Now” signs, and heard an enthusiastic crowd member call out, “Health care yesterday!” I talked to tmpphpzd3xO3my friend whose husband lost his job about her difficult decision about whether or not to take her son to the doctor for an ear infection since it would cost over $100. I think of my friend who was just diagnosed with cancer. Thank goodness she has health insurance – I can’t bear to think of her having to forego treatment, as so many have who can’t afford it and lack the insurance to pay for it. I think of my friend with the severely disabled daughter who can’t move because after years, she finally got her daughter on state supported health care. I think, maybe relief is finally here for her and the 46 million uninsured in this country.

Yesterday, President Obama said that health care reform is not just an economic issue, it’s a moral issue. I agree. Why do the people who suffer bad luck such as loss of job or severe illness then have the further bad luck of not being able to afford health care? It’s just not fair, and it’s not in this way in any other advanced industrialized nation. Health Care (Reform) Now? I sure hope that it will be here soon.

The Cause of His Life

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on August 27th, 2009

Ted Kennedy is gone.  Now is the time for Congress to enact meaningful health care reform, including a public option, as a tribute totmpphpN2Ylkc[1] the “Lion of the Senate.”  Last year, Senator Kennedy referred to health care reform as “the cause of my life.”  This was no exaggeration.  Kennedy ran on the issue of affordable health care in 1962, in his first run for the Senate.  Kennedy was instrumental in the passage of Medicare and Medicaid programs, both controversial programs that faced considerable Republican opposition at the time which have now become highly popular.  In 1980, in his famous “the dream will never die” speech at the Democratic National Convention, Kennedy announced that he would “continue to stand for national health insurance” because “the state of a family’s health should never depend on a family’s wealth.”  There would be no better tribute to a man who gave over 45 years of his life to championing the cause of the poor, the middle class and the disenfranchised, than for Congress to enact health care reform in Ted Kennedy’s name.

There is precedent for enacting major human rights legislation to honor a fallen senatorial comrade.  In 1875, Kennedy’s Bay State predecessor, the great anti-slavery advocate Senator Charles Sumner, lay on his death bed as he pleaded with his Senate colleagues to “enact my civil rights bill.”  Sumner’s colleagues in Congress responded by enacting the 1875 Civil Rights Act as a tribute to his lifelong battle against slavery and on behalf of civil rights.  The 1875 Act prohibited race discrimination in privately owned places of public accommodation.  (Historical note: The Supreme Court struck the 1875 Act down, necessitating the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which also passed with Ted Kennedy’s support)).

Like Sumner, Ted Kennedy worried about his life’s cause while on his death bed. From home, he continued to advocate for health care reform with his staff and colleagues. The week before he died, Kennedy repeated his request to the Massachusetts legislature to authorize the governor to appoint his successor instead of waiting until a special election filled his spot. Ted Kennedy knew that every vote would count in the Senate battle for health care reform.

So, members of Congress, it is up to you to realize Senator Ted Kennedy’s lifelong dream.  He deserves it, and so do we.

The New Thuggery in the Health Care Debate

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 13th, 2009

Word has it that orchestrated groups of Americans fill Town halls not to discuss, not even passionately to discuss, the Obama health care bill, but to prevent discussing it. Is it wrong to oppose health care in a democratic society? Obviously not! Is it wrong to oppose discussing health care reform? No! But it is wrong to engage in conduct that prevents others from civilly discussing such reform.  Opposition to civil discussion in a democratic society is anti-democratic pure and simple.  Who is to blame? The culprits are those who are orchestrating the specific goal of engaging in obstructionist tactics that prevents these town hall meetings from being an exchange of views on health care and those who feed them distortions and lies about the health care bills. Who are these undemocratic folks? I don’t know for sure, but whoever stands aside and fails to condemn such barbarism are equally as undemocratic as those who engage in the orchestration in the first place.

Two culprits can be identified: Newt Gingrich and Charles Grassley. While acknowledging that none of the five congressional btmpphpUhE7OF[1]ills contains an end of life “death panel” requirement, former speaker Newt Gingrich warned that “[c]ommunal standards historically is [sic] a very dangerous concept.” Presumably, he means that though the death panel language is not in the bill, its application through communal standards could in the future construct such a provision.  After all, “You are asking us to trust turning power over to the government, when there are clearly people in American who believe in establishing euthanasia, including selective standards.” Well, I suppose so, but something similar is true of every single provision in every law ever passed in the United States. Those same people can introduce euthanasia into our present Medicare system.  To reject legislation because it must be applied through communal standards is simply to reject democracy outright.  If the community makes such an egregious mistake, then we’ll all band together legislatively to fix it by explicitly rejecting such applications. If we cannot do so because the majority embraces such communal standards, then we’re stuck just as we are in every case where the majority has abuse a piece of legislation. Fear of abuse cannot be reason for endorsing what otherwise is a perfectly respectable piece of legislation without abandoning democracy entirely.  And even in this case, our job as democrats, small “d,” is through politics to become a new majority and eliminate the heinous provision. Gingrich should know better.  Either he does, but is duplicitous, or he doesn’t and needs to rethink his quite unsupportable position. Chuck Grassley’s misconduct is much simpler. He simply lied about whether such a provision is in the bill, and should apologize to his constituents for doing so. Indeed, The Senate should censure Senator Grassley and my favorite president should retract the favorable remarks he made earlier this week about this duplicitous “deather.”

Thoughts on the Sotomayor Hearings

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on July 16th, 2009

When I wasotomayor.jpgs a first year student at Yale Law School, some of the upper level students organized a conference on “Women of Color and the Law.”  The speakers at this conference spoke about the failure of our law to adequately address the needs of women of color, and the role of women of color as lawyers.  The conference had a strong impact on me and my friends.  While in law school, we focused in our classes and our extracurricular activities on the law’s relationship to women of color and other people who have been historically disempowered in out society.  After law school, as a legal services lawyer in the South side of Chicago, I personally witnessed the failure of the law to address the needs of my clients, who were primarily women of color.  Now, there is a woman of color, Sonya Sotomayor, who is about to become a member of the top Court in our country.  I never would have imagined this moment when I was in law school, or when I was a practicing lawyer.

As far as I know, Sotomayor was not present at the Women of Color Conference.  It occurred years after she graduated from Yale.  However, during her hearings she has found herself discussing some of the issues addressed by the speakers at that meeting – the impact of a experience on how a person understands the law, and the importance of a judge mitigating his or her personal views when he or she is interpreting the law.  In a world dedicated to the myth that justice is blind (that is, that judges are not influenced by their backgrounds and experiences), her nuanced explanations are a tough sell.  Fortunately, she is maintaining her composure, and her strong record and the large Democratic majority in the Senate virtually insure that she will be confirmed.  I look forward to that day.

The “Public Option” and the Health of Our Nation

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on June 25th, 2009

As the health care reform debate shifts into high gear, we need to make sure that the reformers have the right priorities.  The fundamental issue before us is what is the purpose of our health care system – the health of the American people or the health of the private insurance companies?  Frankly, these two priorities are increasingly at odds with each other.  As Atul Gawande’s celebrated New Yorker piece reminds us, patients are best served, at the lowest cost, in locations where the medical culture is focused on the health of the patient instead of making a profit.  Because private insurance companies are for profit entities, they are institutionally poorly suited to best serve the needs of the patients.  This does not mean that all private health insurance companies are bad, of course, but it does explain why they are fighting the “public option” tooth and nail in this health care reform debate.  Their argument against the public option is that it is unfair to make private insurance companies compete with government provided health care.  Why?   Because the government can provide services at a lower cost so the competition would be unfair.  Are you kidding me?  All this argument proves is that the public option might hurt the private health insurance industry.

Currently the profits of private insurance companies account for 30% of the cost of our health care.  It’s time to face the fundamental question – how much does preserving the outrageous profits of the private health insurance companies matter?  Is it worth sacrificing access to health care at an affordable cost?  That’s really what’s at stake in the “public option” debate, and the answer to the question is obvious.  Interestingly, polls show that almost 80% of the American public supports a public option.  While Americans may distrust the government, they apparently distrust health insurance companies even more.  For the health of the nation, we need the public option.

Domestic Terrorism

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on June 11th, 2009

The attacks on our country on September 11, 2001 dramatically alerted our nation to the threat of international terrorism.  Our lawmakers responded by authorizing attacks on the country that had harbored the 9/11 terrorists, and anti-immigration measures to keep the terrorists out.  The threat of internatimages.jpgional terrorism is real, but recent events remind us that Muslim extremists from across the globe are not the only terrorist threat facing us.  Before there was 9/11, there was Oklahoma City and Timothy McVeigh, and we still are plagued by right wing extremists in this country.  Yesterday, a vocal anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, James Von Brunn, killed a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial.  As bad as the incident was, it could have been much worse.  Crowds of people were inside the museum, some waiting to attend the premier of a new play about anti-Semitism and racism, Anna and Emmett.  NPR reports that among those expected to attend was Attorney General Eric Holder.  Two weeks ago, anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder murdered George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who provided late abortions.  Now Roeder is warning of more violence, claiming that there are “many other similar events planned around the country.”  Other anti-abortion activists say this is wrong, but do they really know?

Both Von Brunn and Roeder are well known for their outspoken extermist views.  Moreover, these events are particularly disturbing given that gun sales have surged since Barack Obama was elected president.  What are our lawmakers doing about it?  Nothing.  Instead of acting to protect us, Congress recently authorized the possession of concealed weapons in national parks.  It’s about time that we started taking the treat of domestic terrorism seriously, before more innocent people are hurt.

Consider Single Payer

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on May 21st, 2009

After years of woeful neglect, health care reform is now thankfully at the top of the national agenda.  What’s missing from President Obama’s and Congress’ consideration?  A single payer health care system.  This omission is a huge mistake, since it is likely that only a single payer health care system  can solve our nation’s health care woes.

There are two reasons why our nation needs health care reform now: The first is the cost, and theimages2.jpg second is the lack of accessibility of our current system.   Shockingly, 50 million people in our country currently lack health insurance.  At the same time, those of us fortunate enough to have health insurance face mounting costs and cuts in coverage by our employers.  Meanwhile, the cost of medical care in the United States is twice the average in other industrialized nations.  Patients aren’t the only one bearing these costs, either.  From small business owners to General Motors, American employers are being crippled by their responsibilities to pay health insurance premiums.

Why consider single payer?  Because it is the only system that would solve both flaws in our current health care system by expanding access and lowering costs.  Expanding the risk pool of a single insurance carrier to include every person in the country would reduce the costs of health care to all of us because it would include miliions of people who are now healthy but simply unable to afford insurance.  Moreover, if the insurer is the government rather than the private insurance industry, we can save as much as a third of our current health care costs, which currently go to funding medical insurance companies.  Finally, if everyone is insured, everybody will have access to cheaper preventive health care instead of waiting until they are so sick they have to go to the emergency room and rely on expensive life saving measures.

The single payer solution is so clear, no wonder 59% of physicians and 62% of Americans support it!  Yet despite this support, a single payer plan is not currently being considered by President Obama, nor is Representative Conyers’ bill, H.R. 676, receiving much consideration in Congress.  Why not?  The health care insurance industry is a powerful lobby, it’s far too easy for opponents of single payer to demonize it as “socialized medicine” and therefore Un-American, and many are concerned about raising taxes to fund a single payer system.  While it is not possible to just make the insurance lobby go away, the other two objections are easily answered.

Let’s make this clear – single payer is not socialized medicine.  Under a single payer system, the government would not run the health care system, it would just fund the system that already exists, absent the private insurance companies.  Our health care system would be similar to that of every other industrialized nation.  (As an aside, those other nations are home to industries that compete with our American companies without being saddled with health care costs.)

Nor would a single payer system cost more than the existing system.  As I have explained, it would cost at least 30% less than the existing system.  The difference would be that our health care would be funded by tax dollars instead of employer subsidies, employee co-payments and deductibles, and payments by uninsured patients.  Yes, our taxes would go up, but taxes would be our only health care costs.  American businesses would be able to compete on the international market, and small business owners would be able to stay in business.  The millions of dollars saved by employers could be invested in raising salaries of existing employees and hiring new employees.

Imagine being able to go to the doctor whenever you need one without worrying about paying the full bill, a co-payment or a deductable.  Imagine not fearing bankruptcy if God forbid you or a member of your family suffers from a catastrophic illness or injury.  Imagine not seeing your real wages go down every year as your meager raise is eaten up by higher medical expenses.  Imagine an economy in which small businesses flourish and larger corporations can compete in the international market.  All of this is possible, and it is within out reach – if our elected representatives will consider the single payer solution.