NM Congressman's Single Payer Bombshell

I had the opportunity to interview New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Lujan in his Washington office on Thursday September 17. Limited internet access while traveling, unfamiliarity with mp3 files, Rosh Hashanah and the complete failure of our household plumbing conspired to prevent me from posting the interview and transcript until today. I apologize in advance for the poor sound quality.

And I must add the following disclaimer: I am not a hard-nosed professional reporter, but rather a constituent of Congressman Lujan. I like the policies he supports. What follows is a friendly dialogue about health care between a Congressman and a constituent.

Several main points of interest emerged.

1) Over the recess, despite the hysteria about death panels and birth certificates and forced government circumcision, five new co-sponsors signed on to HR 676, the Single Payer Bill. Congressman Conyers' office confirmed that five had signed on during the recess. I was told that they had become supporters of Medicare for All as a result of public pressure from constituents. I looked up the Library of Congress list of co-sponsors and could not find anyone who signed on during the recess. I will continue to investigate to confirm the claim. If this is true, it indicates that despite a media storm of negative publicity, support for Medicare for All continues to grow.

2) We can help it to grow by continuing to advocate for a robust public option to our Senators and Representatives. Clergy can speak to their congregations about our moral imperative to look after the least among us. (While I forgot to raise the issue with Congressman Lujan, we can also ask them to support a state option to develop universal coverage.)

3) Introduction of a bill in Senate finance is a huge step forward even if we don't like the bill. It allows the process to progress.

4) Shanah Tovah!

I have included a transcript of the interview below the link. The interview and transcript begin at about 2:18 into the recording. Prior to that, we were discussing evaluations of care coordination models. Sorry that I don't know how to edit an mp3 file. I didn't want to hold up posting any longer.

Click here to listen to the audio.

Full Transcript Below:

Me: I want to talk to you mainly about health care bills and Senator Baucus' plan. First of all, most of my readers want Single Payer/Medicare for all. I sent an email out to my list serve asking folks what they would like me to ask you. About half wrote back saying that the public option is a sham, they want Medicare for All. Then the other half had more complicated questions. So my readers want Medicare for All. And I did get a phone call from my boss yesterday [Lorenzo Valdez, the Rio Arriba County Manager, and a constituent of Congressman Lujan] after he found out what was in the Baucus bill and he was very irate. There are a lot of shortcomings. So I guess what I want to start out with is...let's talk a little bit about the Baucus bill and then how do we get from what we have to... we're not gonna get everything we want but how can we get something that is acceptable for Northern New Mexico and the rest of the country, and what can the folks who read Tikkun do to help us get there?

BRL: Well, what can folks do? I'll start off with that.

Me: Okay.

BRL: We need people to be vocal. We need to hear from them. All members need to hear from their constituents. A phone call, a letter, a letter to the editor, whatever forum it might be...We need them talking to their Congressmen, to friends. We need them to especially dispell whatever misconceptions were spread. They were viral. They spread like wildfire. We need people to know the truth of what we're talking about. I understand the frustration of those that are strong single payer supporters. There's only I think 86 of us now that are co-sponsors of Congressman Conyer's Bill. The good news is that I think there were five that were new co-sponsors through the recess. I want to say that when I looked at the numbers before we left there were 81 and now we're up to 86. With that being said, we need 218 votes. So we need to continue to talk about this, and again our constituencies can make a world of difference in helping to push this over the top by creating the momentum that we need to keep this discussion alive until something can be accomplished. The Baucus bill, I know there's a lot that's wrong with it but there are some positives as well. The positive is, it was the last committee to get something out. From a process perspective that's critical because without that happening, it's tough to go on to put together the piece of legislation so that we can move on them in both chambers. Four of the bills, three in the house and one in the Senate, all have the public option and describe it very clearly, and how it works within the exchange. That's good. We just need to continue working hard to help make it happen and make it a reality.

Me: The other bills that are out, the House bills and the HELP bill are all much better than the Finance Bill. How do we get something that could one day become Medicare for all? What's the process? How do we go from a bill that doesn't have the Public Option, and has an excise tax that is going to prove for some states to be incrementally more severe as time goes on, and that has the free rider in it which actually penalizes employers if they hire low income employees who are subsidized. That would be very bad for New Mexico, a very low income state.

BRL: That being said, I'm in the House. So our colleagues in the Senate...they will work with one another. They will look at their versions of legislation and put together a bill that they will ultimately vote for. On the House side, where I am a member, that's what we're going to continue to do to make sure that we're advocating for what I believe is important: the inclusion of the public option, to make sure it can work within the exchange. That's the mechanism that we need to help explain to others so that when the President and others emphasize the importance of cost containment and a competitive environment that they're trying to create...this is what allows it to be achieved. And there are many members, you should see the numbers that are co-sponsors of Conyers' HR676, and many others that are very outspoken on this issue.

And many people are talking about it. More people now than when we went home from the recess. And so that's very positive in my opinion.

Me: How do you suppose you picked up five supporters of Conyers' HR676 over recess with all the hysteria about death panels and birth certificates?

BRL: Every member is different. I'm not certain. Maybe it was discussions with their constituents. Sometimes its learning more about whatever the issue may be or it's hearing directly from those advocates who are making a very compelling argument by providing information that you know to be true and honest. That could be the reason. But I am just speculating. I have no idea . I haven't spoken to members that signed on after the recess.

Me: I'm really curious about that. It's counter-intuitive.

BRL: What you could probably do too is get a list of who was added...

Me: Oh, that's a good idea!

BRL: You don't have to talk to the members. You can just call their staff and ask. They can tell you why...

Me: Do you think I can get a list from your staff?

BRL: Congressman Conyers' office would be the one to put you in touch with them. (Instructs staff to help gather information).

Me: Well in terms of telling my readers how they can be useful, that would be a really good thing to tell them. If we can know how it is with all the sound and the fury that five congress people signed on in that time, well then we can know what's working.

BRL: That's why we need everyone so much is that, the death panels, the things that they're saying that are in this legislation that we know not to be true. That's why we need everybody to be willing to say, "Well now that's not true." But do it in a way that helps us to accomplish what we're trying to achieve and what it means. Because the opponents of reform, they did a good job scaring everyone. And I don't want to see that. They were effective.

Me: Yes.

BRL: To make things up and scare people...it's just so wrong.

Me: So, what's next? Are the leaders going to use reconciliation? Or are we going to continue to have all kinds of mumbo-jumbo being spouted about G-d knows what? They come up with a different idiotic thing every day. Now it's a religious exclusion. To me that makes no sense. Can I object and not have insurance because my religion says we must take care of the least among us? What do they mean by a religious exclusion?

BRL: Well again, when you talk about what the Senate's rules are about reconciliation, that's the Senate and you'd probably get a better understanding or response from them about what their next step is or what their thinking is from visiting Senator Reid's office (laughter) or even other members of the Senate. In the House, you get one more vote than the majority. Two hundred and eighteen is the magic number for a piece of legislation to pass. Those are our rules. On their side, you know, it's 51 if we move to reconciliation. But those are the rules. It's hard for me to talk about what their strategy is going to be. I wasn't part of any of those discussions.

Me: So what happens now that Senate Finance has produced a bill?

BRL: That's why it was so important...the Senate action in this final committee because now as a body, a piece of legislation can come together. There may be some more discussions within committee to put together a final piece of legislation that would take these ideas and bring them to the full chamber and potentially open it up to amendment. We vote those up and down and then put together a final...while the Senate does their business with whatever provisions they adopt. If they don't mirror one another, they go to conference and members sit down and try to work out whatever the differences are. They bring that back to the respective chambers and we will have hopefully just one final vote on that legislation where there will be some understanding...whatever it may be. We get that to the President, get it signed before the four years ends. That's what I'd like to see. I don't know if that's what others agree with but that's certainly what I'd like to see.

Me: So I guess the strategy from the House side that we'd want to work towards is pushing forward the most inclusive bill possible with a strong public option.

BLR: A strong public option absolutely. The provisions that are in the House Bill are reflected for the most part in all these...which is positive. That's addressing preexisting conditions and the denial factor. Even the Baucus bill has that. So that's positive. What you need to look at is to see what's the same in the pieces of legislation because those are...that's where there appears to be agreement. And so it's a matter of where the pieces of legislation are different that there should also be some discussion. And so that's where we're gonna continue to be very outspoken on that computative mechanism within the exchange. Because that for whatever reason got a lot of attention. People misconstrued what it was. That caused so much of the confusion that we see in people. And so that's why we're continuing to reach out and talk to folks all that we can. You know what would be great? To see the strength of the support that we have with the faith-based community...coming out with strong letters of support, talking to congregations about the importance of why we need to do this. That's something that didn't happen back in the nineties. That was important. They were part of the groups that came out very vocally in opposition.

Me: Well then maybe one of the things we could do is over the holidays have Rabbis make it part of their d'var Torah and maybe that would be an excellent way to make the legislation as inclusive as possible so it covers the least among us.

BLR: I couldn't have said that better myself.

Me: I had to say it in a Jewish sort of way. One last question. Is there anything you'd like to say to my readers before we go?

BLR: Just the importance of reaching out to others about why this is so important. How it makes a difference in people's lives. That's truly what we have to do! Shanah Tovah.!

Me: Happy New Year to you too!

BLR: Hopefully your readers will give me a chance to complement you on your beautiful earrings.

Me: Well you're very sweet. My northern New Mexico earrings.

BLR: Yeah with the inlaid turquoise.

[Ed. note - CM1] Originally posted 2009-10-01 01:37:38 -0400.

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According to Thomas.gov, HR 676 now has 93 co-sponsors.

Title: To provide for comprehensive health insurance coverage for all United States residents, and for other purposes.