Thursday, July 9, 2009 | 5:13 p.m.
Advocates of including a public option in health care reform legislation rallied outside the Lloyd George Federal building Thursday and delivered petitions in support of their position to the offices of Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.)
“It’s the only (plan) nationwide that would save money, cut down on health care costs, and it’s the only way that we can cover everybody,” said Randall Downey, one of the organizers of the rally. “If we don’t have a public option, we do not have health care.”
A public option, or government-administered health insurance plan, is one of the most hotly debated components of the health care reform legislation currently being considered by Congress.
Supporters say offering the uninsured and under-insured the option to buy into a government-run health insurance plan would improve access to health care and create a competitive “check” to keep private plan rates at an affordable price. But many Republicans, and some Democrats, are opposed to such a plan, saying it is too costly and will lead to a socialized health care system.
As the Senate nears debate on several Democrat-backed health care reform proposals, Nevada’s senators remain on opposite sides of the issue, with Reid seeking votes to pass a plan with a public option and Ensign opposed to such a plan.
Rally organizers said they presented 40 pages of signatures to each office to acknowledge and thank Reid for his support and urge Ensign to reconsider his position on the issue. The petitions included about 1,300 signatures from Nevadans collected through MoveOn.org and 2,000 names collected by an effort launched by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Dr. Howard Dean.
Ensign spokesman Tory Mazzola said Ensign considers health care reform a top priority and remains committed to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle on solutions that employ “innovative thinking rather than big government thinking.”
“Senator Ensign is concerned with government-run health plans because one, it (has an) enormous price tag, two, the higher taxes it would put on Americans and three, because it will put a bureaucrat between the doctor and the patient,” he said. “We hear from constituents every day and a great deal of people are opposed to big government solutions, but we welcome feedback on both sides of every issue.”
Reid’s office reiterated the majority leader’s support for a public option.
“Sen. Reid believes that health care reform must lower the high costs of care, ensure all Americans’ access to quality, affordable care and protect patient’s choice of their doctors, hospitals and health plans. … One of those choices should be a public option,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers wrote in an e-mail.
The rally itself featured impassioned speeches by advocates of health care reform, including nurses, a small business owner and a woman who has faced large health care costs and coverage issues since her husband became a quadriplegic in an accident 38 years ago.
One attendee, Linda Turner, said she supported a public option because of her personal experience with high health care costs. She said that she has previously paid $800 a month for health insurance because of a “small pre-existing condition,” and at times had to go without health care because she couldn’t afford it. She is now on Medicare, which she said provides great care.
“I love Medicare and wish everyone could (be on it), but in the interim, at least this gives a choice,” Turner said.
Many supporters also sought to dispel what they said were myths or misinformation about a public plan, including that it would force people to change their current plan or make the government a middleman in individuals’ health care decisions.
“I just worry that people are getting caught up on semantics, the words. People who want to keep your private plans, keep it,” said Cathy Karma, who attended the rally. But she said including a public option is crucial because, “when you make health care a for-profit business, right there, it’s wrong.
"When you run a health provider business, the bottom line is that you have to be successful for the shareholders.”
Others said a public option simply was not enough. Jane Heenam, a psychotherapist who runs a private practice, spoke at length in favor of a sweeping overhaul that would replace the current system with a single-payer plan, where doctors, hospitals and health care providers would be paid through one single fund.
“Public option is not reform,” she said. “If what we do is incremental change again, it will take another generation before this issue comes up in this sort of serious, determined way, and we will have lost another generation thought the system that is not about health care.”
Karma countered that a public option was in fact a compromise to enact a partial single-payer plan and the best and most feasible option for lowering costs and approving access.
“I’m totally for single-payer, too, but I understand that in the political process, you have got to walk in baby steps,” she said.
While the 30 or so supporters displayed enthusiasm for the cause, waving signs and cheering for more than a half hour despite the scorching heat, some expressed concern that they do not have the support to pass a public option plan.
“Basically, the Republicans are against everything we’re for and we’ve got enough turncoat Democrats that we could lose,” said Karen Benzer, the head coordinator for the Southern Nevada coalition of MoveOn.org. “They’re just taking the wind out of our sails.”
But Benzer also said she was excited about the growing grassroots support she has seen for a public plan and health care reform in general.
“Let’s not lose this momentum,” she said to the crowd. “Let’s make this 40 people go into 80 people, go into 1,000 people, because you guys are warriors.”