The 16 people who gathered in Judy Dooley’s living room on Saturday came by different paths. Some had talked to Dooley or other volunteers with the Obama Caucus of Ann Arbor at a table they man each week at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Some had received a flyer about the event, distributed by volunteers who regularly canvas city neighborhoods. Three of the people there – Dooley, Gus Teschke and Daniela Gobetti – are coordinators for the local Obama group.
We’re pretty sure U.S. Rep. John Dingell didn’t hear about the meeting from a flyer in his door, but he showed up too. He’s using the August recess in Congress the same way other legislators are – returning to their districts to mobilize support or opposition to the health care reform bill that both the House and Senate will tackle in the fall.
The focus of Saturday’s small neighborhood gathering was President Barack Obama’s health care reform efforts, including legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced by Dingell that proposes a public health insurance option. People attending the two-hour meeting raised a lot of questions about what the proposal entailed, and many shared their own experiences with problems they’ve encountered under the nation’s current health care system.
What’s the Obama Caucus?
The goal of the Obama Caucus is to capitalize on the networks and organizational infrastructure developed during the presidential campaign to try to maintain the political momentum. The election campaign developed volunteers’ skills in raising money and getting out the vote. But Gus Teschke, who served as a local campaign volunteer coordinator, sees a continued role: “We’re going to keep going and see what we can do,” he said. Teschke passed around a sign-up sheet for people who wanted to volunteer at the Saturday farmers market table from 8 a.m. until noon, or for door-to-door canvassing on Monday evenings between 6:15-8:30 p.m.
The group at Judy Dooley’s home also heard from Chris Wolff, the new local field organizer for Organizing for America, an outgrowth of the Obama for America campaign organization. Wolff’s territory includes the counties of Washtenaw, Monroe and western Wayne, but his energies are focused on the parts of that area which aren’t heavily Democratic, including western Washtenaw, Plymouth and Canton.
On Saturday, Teschke told the group that the local caucus is pushing to let Congressional leaders know that citizens support the health care reform initiative. As part of that effort, Teschke passed around a handout to the folks gathered in Dooley’s living room with tips on how to write a letter to Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow – including a template of what points to include, and addresses for the senators’ offices in Detroit and Washington D.C.
Dooley had incentives for letters that got published: Some hard-to-find Obama stickers from the 2008 campaign.
Wolff said they need to “hammer away” at U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter, a Republican from the 11th District, representing northwestern Wayne and southwestern Oakland counties. The rest of the region’s representatives and senators – all Democrats, including Dingell, Levin, Stabenow and Mark Schauer, from District 7 – are supportive of the president’s health care reform, he said, but “it doesn’t hurt to keep pressuring them, even if they’re in the bag.”
The handout that Teschke passed around states that writing a letter by hand and including your personal health care story makes a bigger impact.
Personal Perspectives on Health Care
Attending Saturday’s Obama Caucus gathering was Emanuel Tanay, a physician and retired professor of psychiatry. Tanay recalled that there was universal health care in Poland when where he was born, “and that was a long time ago.” He said he supports reform, both as a physician and a consumer.
One woman, who had volunteered last year at Obama’s local campaign office at the corner of Liberty and First, has a son-in-law who started his own small architectural firm – providing health care for his employees is breaking the bank, she said.
Another woman said the last time she was politically active was in 1972 for George McGovern’s campaign. But watching her life’s savings “going down the toilet” propelled her to action.
Saturday’s event was the second time within the past week that The Chronicle encountered personal stories on health care issues. Last Thursday, several people shared their perspectives in a discussion at the Ann Arbor District Library, sponsored by the National Issues Forums.
Those perspectives included a man who had never been without health insurance, but had recently been enrolled in Medicare – he’d heard there’d be significant cuts to Medicare and wondered how that would affect him. Another young man, who had been without health insurance, reported that he’d recently been diagnosed with suspected glaucoma – the cost of the regular checkups required to track possible progress of the disease were a concern to him.
There was a woman who’d lost a friend to breast cancer in Canada, where she said there was a higher mortality rate from breast cancer. She wondered if Canadians’ satisfaction with their health care system was a result of their unwillingness to ask hard questions of their health care providers.
One man spoke about his mother, who had recently passed away and who’d been covered by Medicaid. He reported that he felt like every step of the way, the entire health care system had been trying to “push her over the cliff,” that is, to end her life.
A GM retiree expressed concern that health care could “sink my battleship.” An owner of an urgent care facility suggested that high health care costs were partly attributable to illegal immigrants receiving health care.
But one man, who was uninsured, allowed: “This whole topic bores me to death.” The only reason he was there, he said, was out of a sense of civic duty.
The gathering at the library on Thursday was not universally supportive of the Obama administration in general, or in favor of the kind of reform proposed in the current House bill. There was much skepticism expressed about any government-mandated features of the program, in particular the idea that employers should shoulder the burden of providing health care for their employees.
Some of the sentiment at the library on Thursday is reflected in a line-by-line critique of the 1,000-page House bill adapted by Liberty Counsel from a blog post by Peter Fleckenstein, which one of the participants in the forum forwarded to The Chronicle afterwards.
The Obama Proposal: Dingell Makes the Push
People attending the Obama Caucus meeting at Dooley’s home on Saturday had concerns, but were supportive of reform. For the first hour – before Dingell arrived – the group had talked generally about the health care reform measures in Congress, with many saying they didn’t feel informed about the details at this point. Several said they wished that Obama would be more clear and vocal about what he wanted.
So when Dingell arrived, there were questions. But first there was applause as he entered the living room with his district administrator, Andy LaBarre. Dingell – the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, and a decades-long advocate of universal health care – then spent an hour talking about his own experiences with health care legislation, and answering questions.
The good news, Dingell contended, was that Congress is further along than it’s ever been to passing health care legislation that will cover every American. “It’s not the bill I would have written,” he said, but it’s good enough. “I’d rather have a single payer system and be done with it.”
He described himself as a pragmatist, quoting former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” So the “good enough” bill he sponsored is out of committee – it was approved on Friday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But there’s a long way to go. Congress is taking its August recess and won’t pick up the issue again until the fall. [The House went on break last Friday, and the Senate will adjourn on Aug. 7.]
The House bill still requires a floor vote. In the Senate, there are two competing bills. One includes a public option, which means the government would offer a health insurance plan. The other eschews a public option in favor of nonprofit health care cooperatives. On Saturday, Dingell said he’d do everything he could to keep the “public option” component in whatever final legislation is passed.
Teschke has concerns about co-ops and triggers, and politely pressed Dingell on the issue.
The idea of a “trigger” is that a public insurance option would not be mandated at first – but could be “triggered” if voluntary measures in the health care industry did not work to meet certain standards. One example of a trigger might be if private insurance companies can’t meet certain goals for breadth of coverage within a given time frame – at that point, public health insurance would kick in.
As background for his question on triggers, Teschke said that at a previous meeting, a spokeswoman for Stabenow didn’t answer the question of whether the senator opposed co-ops and triggers.
“I’d bet you a good dinner that when the last dog is shot, Stabenow and Carl [Levin] will be with us,” Dingell said. Teschke later asked whether Dingell could post on his website that he opposes triggers and co-ops. Dingell seemed to hedge a bit, saying that there’s only so much he can put online, adding “I can only take on so many fights.”
One attendee said he was surprised that Obama has been so quiet as Congress wrangles about health care legislation, and asked for Dingell’s thoughts on why that might be. Dingell began answering that question by saying that he originally supported Hillary Clinton for president, but that he thought Obama was doing a superb job.
Obama was scared by the failure of the Clinton administration’s attempts to reform health care, Dingell said. Bill Clinton’s approach was to deliver proposed legislation to Congress. The point man for that effort, Ira Magaziner, “is so smart that he outsmarts himself.” And Bill Clinton was slow to push for Congress to act, Dingell said – all of that led to failure by a narrow margin.
Obama’s approach has been different, he said, leaving it to the leadership of Congress to pound out legislation – it’s not top-down. That’s led to a lot of disarray, Dingell said, including the massive problem of not getting answers about how much these different approaches might cost.
Tanay, the retired professor of psychiatry, expressed concern that if this legislation fails to solve the health care crisis, that will give opponents more ammunition to say that the public option doesn’t work. He’s worried that legislators will be satisfied with “half a loaf.” Dingell conceded that it’s possible for Congress to screw it up. Moving too quickly is a risk, he said. That makes him a careful legislator, he noted, and as a result, a slow one.
Dingell added: “I don’t think we’ll screw it up.”
Dingell is holding a health care town hall on Thursday, Aug. 6 at the Romulus Athletic Center, 35765 Northline Road in Romulus. That event starts at 6 p.m.
The Obama Caucus of Ann Arbor will hold its next meeting on Saturday, Aug. 15 from 2-4 p.m. at 321 Parklake in Ann Arbor, next to Dolph Park. [confirm date]