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Blumenauer: US Could Have Single Payer Care Within A Decade

Portland-based Democratic Congressman spoke Tuesday to a supportive crowd about the role Oregon could play in changing the national healthcare debate.
May 31, 2017

U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer touted single-payer healthcare as a solution to the nation’s tangled and expensive system of care on Tuesday, in a speech before a politically supportive audience at First Unitarian Church of Portland.

Speaking to packed pews, the Democrat was joined on stage by author and single-payer activist T.R. Reid, state Senator Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, and activist physicians Samuel Metz and Paul Gorman.

Blumenauer described the Affordable Care Act as a slightly left of center compromise bill that must be protected or improved during the current era of Republican dominance in Congress. But he also argued that now is the time to discuss a more left-leaning alternative, even if it may take years to enact actual change.

“Because of the near-meltdown of the economy, the fierce turmoil of the Tea Party, the chaos of the past 10 months, I think we’re in a position today to put together a solution,” Blumenauer said.

“I think transformational change is possible far quicker than people recognize,” the congressman continued. “There’s something happening around the country. Twenty years from now there will be a single payer system of some variation. I think it could be 10 years. Things may happen sooner, depending on what we all do.”

As to that question of what to do, Blumenauer turned the microphone over to Reid, who reiterated arguments put forth in his best-selling book, “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care.”

Through his work, Reid looked at roughly 35 developed democracies to see how each approached healthcare, the author said.

“All the other countries like us, all the other developed democracies on the planet, have decided to provide healthcare for everybody,” Reid said. “There’s only one industrialized democracy that does not provide healthcare for everybody, and that’s the world’s richest country, the United States of America. To me this is a national disgrace.”

Reid noted that there’s no universal approach to universal coverage. Some countries offer single-payer care, others like Japan and Germany host multiple insurance plans that collectively cover everyone. Some provide totally free care with never a bill to pay, others require co-pays or other investments in the system.

Regardless of specifics, these countries consistently spend less per capita on medical treatment, and get better results at the same time.

“There are different routes to that destination, but they all agree on what we ought to do,” said Reid, who lamented his home state of Colorado’s failed effort to enact its own statewide system of coverage.

That initiative effort failed when voters balked at the $25 billion pricetag, and as insurance industry opponents outspent supporters by $8 million-to-$800,000, Reid said.

But Oregon could be more successful at winning that ballot box battle, he argued.

“Here in Oregon, you’ve got a bunch of trouble makers, rabble rousers, apple cart upsetters, doctors, patients, members of Congress” – not to mention, state legislators, he noted.

Among those legislators are Democrats Sen. Dembrow and Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, who each argued in favor of radical action within the state.

Keny-Guyer noted that already this legislative session, small reforms are advancing through the process – including a bill that would limit out-of-pocket pharmaceutical costs to insured patients, and would force drug makers to offer rebates to insurance companies if they charge significantly more in Oregon than in other major countries around the world.

And Dembrow spoke of growing support among Democrats in the state for a single-payer bill – unlikely to pass this legislative session, especially without any Republican backing, but a possibility for a future ballot referendum.

“California is making support for single payer a marker for Democrats down there,” and that leadership could help Oregon activists gain momentum, he said.

“What we have to think about doing, as we are preparing for our election here in Oregon, to put single payer on the ballot – which right now is looking like the year 2020 – is how can we partner with Washington so they get it on their ballot in 2020? How do we partner with Colorado so they get it on their ballot in 2020?” Dembrow asked.

He argued that coordinating efforts across multiple states would help activists resist the flow of big business lobbying funds. “All those insurance dollars are going to get spread out. Because otherwise they are going to pick us off state by state. And let me say, if California can do it, it’s going to make it so much easier for the rest of us. As many of us know, you put California together with Oregon and Washington, you’ve got the world’s sixth largest economy.”

Reach Courtney Sherwood at [email protected].