September 26, 2009

So there I was, driving to my friends' house for dinner and babysitting last night when Howard Dean called me.

I'd been scheduled to talk to him after his appearance at the Philadelphia Free Library yesterday, but there was some kind of miscommunication and it didn't happen.

Anyway, he apologized for the mix-up and we had an interesting discussion. (Remember, none of this is verbatim. I was driving while we talked, and I've reconstructed as best I can.)


The first thing I said was, "Every single problem you described at today's talk, logistical and financial, could be solved with single payer."

His response was along the lines of "And your point is?" As in, let's deal with what we have in front of us, I suppose.

So then I asked him what he thought the strategy was behind the administration starting the debate with the public option instead of single payer. "I think it was a terrible mistake," he said. "I think they were worried it would be called socialism." (Naturally, I agreed.)

Let's see. What else? He said the reason the focus of the campaign is on the finances of health care is because Obama was actually put in the White House by the under-35 voters, and while they're socially liberal, they're very conservative on the deficit and are convinced they won't be able to count on things like Social Security.

"You don't have to tell me," I said. "My kids are Ron Paul fans." He laughed and said, "Then you understand."

"Tell them if this bill doesn't pass, their sick parents will have to move in with them. That ought to do it," I advised.

(And I said that while the under-35 votes may have put Obama in the White House, I suspected the bulk of individual contributions came from baby boomers and he might want to look into that.)

I said the real problem with the current health care system was a matter of human dignity. I told him about a friend who's struggling with brain injury and has been turned down three times for Social Security disability. "They keep telling her she can work, but who's going to hire someone who doesn't know ahead of time if she'll be too sick to work?" I said.

He said yes, there's no question that the present system was a nightmare for the chronically ill or handicapped.

I told him I was really hoping the bill's final version included lowering the Medicare age to 55, "since I turn 55 next week."

"I'd like to see it lowered to 50, that would make a lot of sense," he replied. We talked about how it would lessen the cost burden on employers and increase the chances of the over-50s getting rehired.

We also discussed the positive ripple effects we could expect from the public option - that it would lower the costs of auto insurance, and take work-related injuries out of the worker's comp system.

I talked about the strange Beltway bubble and asked if people working there really understood what was at stake out here.

He said no, it wasn't my imagination, the people in the Beltway really do live in a different universe - "especially the Senate. It really is like a club," he said. He corrected himself: "No, it is a club. And they're most concerned about their personal relationships with the other Senators, and then everything else. It's very strange."

Don't they understand how angry everyone is out here? I said. "If they put us in a position where we're paying more money for less coverage, it's going to be war." He said no, they really don't - although he keeps trying to tell them. He said we're looking at a real political disaster if they screw this up. "Because I'm on the outside, I get to say those things," he said.

Dean says not to worry about the Baucus bill, that the final version won't look anything like it "but everyone's sort of tiptoeing around, no one wants to say it out loud. They have to pass a bill out of Finance first, and then they'll change it."

I told him the perception from here is that the Baucus bill was the one that had the White House approval, and he said, "I can understand why you have that perception, but I don't think so at all."

I told him many of us despaired of any real change, and he reacted immediately. "You absolutely shouldn't be thinking that way," he said. He believes there's a "95 percent chance" of a real public option, and if there isn't one, the bill shouldn't pass.

No point to throwing billions of dollars to the insurance industry if we don't get the public option, he said.

"Do you think the people working on this bill actually understand that?" I said. "Maybe I'm being cynical here."

"Yes, they do," he said. "The bill was basically written by the insurance industry. I do think they know [it's a giveaway]." He said it was written by two former insurance industry lobbyists, they knew what they were doing.

But the good news is, he really does believe there's going to be an affordable public option, and all this will be a moot point.

I told him a lot of us were counting on him, and if he told us to support the final bill, I'd feel okay about supporting it.

Here's hoping.

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