Health groups want Obama to press harder for reform

A wide spectrum of healthcare advocacy groups have a message for President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats: Get it done.


In the days since Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-Mass.) took away the Democrats’ crucial 60th vote in the upper chamber, organizations that worked intensely to advance healthcare reform over the past year — and over many previous years — have grown anxious and frustrated that congressional inaction and a lack of direction from the White House could doom their mission.

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“Congress can still do what it was planning to do before the election in Massachusetts,” Richard Kirsch, the national campaign manager of Healthcare for America Now (HCAN), a labor-affiliated liberal activist group, said at a press conference Wednesday organized by the National Coalition on Healthcare. “It’s time for the president and the Congress to move us over the finish line.”

Though differences remain among these organizations about what should be in the final bill, an outcry not to abandon or scale down healthcare reform has come from a wide variety of voices.

Liberal activist groups such as MoveOn.org, traditional Democratic allies including labor groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), healthcare interest groups such as the American Medical Association and consumer organizations like the AARP are cautioning lawmakers that backing away at this late stage would be damaging.

Democrats have been unable to coalesce around a way forward on Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative. The missing element, activists say, is leadership.

At the press conference Wednesday, representatives of disparate organizations urged Obama and congressional Democratic leaders to publicly embrace a plan to move forward.

“Without prompt and decisive leadership, defeat — as it has been for over a century — will again prevail,” said Ralph Neas, the president and CEO of the National Coalition on Healthcare, which comprises physician societies, labor unions, membership organizations like the NAACP and the AARP and patient groups such as the American Heart Association.

“Only a failure of political [leadership] will keep America from having what every other industrialized nation in the world already has,” said Neas.

According to a survey of MoveOn.org members, the consequences of not passing a comprehensive healthcare bill could be dire for Democrats. Seventy-one percent of the group’s members said they “probably” or “definitely” would not contribute money to Democratic candidates this year absent final action on healthcare. SEIU President Andy Stern has previously conveyed a similar message, arguing that union members will be less inclined to work to elect Democrats if healthcare reform fails.

In addition to the National Coalition on Healthcare, HCAN and Families USA, leaders of the American College of Cardiology, the League of Women Voters, Easter Seals, League of United Latin American Citizens and the Small Business Majority participated in the event.

Liberal activists and labor unions that supported Obama’s candidacy and have poured money and effort into electing the Democratic majority in Congress have grown increasingly discouraged that the key elements of the president’s “change” agenda have gone unfulfilled.

“Now we’re at the crossroads to determine whether change will really occur,” said Ron Pollack, president of the liberal healthcare reform advocacy group Families USA. “You cannot retain the mantle change without producing change.”

Families USA is holding its annual conference in Washington this week. What might have been a victory celebration has instead become an opportunity to ramp up the pressure on lawmakers. In addition to three days of meetings and speeches, including remarks from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Thursday, the organization will stage a rally on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Specifically, the groups at the National Coalition on Healthcare press conference called on the House to pass the Senate’s version of healthcare reform and for the House and Senate both to adopt a second bill through the budget reconciliation process, which would enable the measure to prevail in the Senate on a simple majority vote.

This pathway to final action appears to be the most likely, but doubts remain about whether centrist Democrats would support advancing the bill under special rules in the Senate, which typically requires a 60-vote margin to pass major bills.

Lawmakers are also concerned that arcane rules that govern reconciliation would allow Republicans to draw out the debate by demanding votes on individual provisions on the grounds they are not budget-related.