Congressman Conyers to speak in favor of ‘single payer’ in Oregon

Supporters of a “single payer” public health insurance system are gearing up for a daylong Jan. 29 conference in Portland at which they’ll hear from the leading single payer advocate in Congress — and strategize how to support a single payer bill that will be introduced in the Oregon Legislature.

The United States has a government-provided single-payer health insurance system for those 65 and older, known as Medicare, and it’s extremely popular among seniors. But private insurance companies and their political allies have fiercely opposed proposals to extend Medicare to all Americans, such as HR 676, a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Ill.). Conyers will talk at the conference about his bill, which President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate refused to consider during the 2009-2010 deliberations over health insurance reform.

Also headlining the event will be Dr. Margaret Flowers of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). Flowers, a Maryland pediatrician, was arrested during a 2009 hearing of the Senate Finance Committee for demanding that the committee hear testimony on Conyers’ bill. Committee Chair Max Baucus refused during weeks of hearings on health care reform to allow testimony from any supporter of a single payer system, even though Conyers’ bill had 87 Congressional co-sponsors and a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Such universal government-provided health insurance is common throughout the world.

The Portland conference, paid for by the Presbyterian Church USA, has the endorsement of the Oregon AFL-CIO and 10 other labor organizations. It will take place Jan. 29, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the First Unitarian Church, 1211 SW Main St., Portland.

Activists, including Portland Jobs with Justice, hope to use the conference as a springboard to build support for a bill to be introduced in the Oregon Legislature the following week by State Rep. Michael Dembrow and State Sen. Chip Shields.

Though single payer wasn’t considered as a nationwide option during the Congressional health care debate, Sanders and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) were able to win a provision in the final version of the health reform legislation that gives states some latitude to experiment with single payer. Section 1332 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act allows states to implement alternatives to the private insurance market exchanges, with a federal waiver, as long as they provide coverage at least as comprehensive and affordable for a comparable number of residents. That opens the door to states that want to try a single payer system.

Besides Oregon, campaigns are under way to propose single payer this year in Vermont, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and California.

To register for the conference, visit or call 503-262-4970.

The Vermont Legislature passed a bill last year to study single payer as well as a public insurance option in order that state lawmakers can pass the best plan this year. And the California Legislature twice passed single payer bills that were vetoed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; advocates could try again now that Democrat Jerry Brown is governor.

One problem: The national legislation says states can’t have the waivers until 2017. But Wyden and Sanders have pledged to get that rule changed, so that states that want alternatives don’t have to spend money and time setting up the private health insurance exchanges.

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