Division Among Single Payers Advocates?

by Robert Mayard

The news that the Service Employees International Union is planning to dump a large amount of cash into support for Vermont’s rush to single payer healthcare has caused some dissenting comments among advocates of that push.  Some of that dissent was contained in an article entitled “The Trojan Horse in Montpelier: Can SEIU Help Vermonters Win Single Payer?”   The article was one of many, which expressed concern about the SEIU supported “air war”.

To counter conservative attacks, Shumlin and friends are holding a press conference next Thursday to unveil “Vermont Leads: Single Payer Now!,” their own vehicle for advertising and door-to-door canvassing in favor of Green Mountain Care. This new addition to the Vermont political scene will be hiring canvassers and has already raised $100,000 for a six-month drive “to engage and activate Vermonters through media and grassroots organizing.”

According to Peter Sterling, an experienced local political operative who was just named director of the group, Vermonters can expect even more spending on TV ads, when the legislature reconvenes.

Unfortunately, Vermont Leads doesn’t draw on the formidable grassroots network created since 2008 by the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC)—and seems designed to bypass that group, which is the state’s most influential single-payer advocate. The VWC’s “Health Care Is a Human Right” campaign has been widely credited, both locally and nationally, with spearheading the multi-year community-labor mobilization needed to pass the legislation known as Act 48 last year.

The VWC has long received strong backing from unions with members who live and work in Vermont—like the United Electrical Workers, Communications Workers, and Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, which bargains for most unionized health care workers in the state.

In contrast, Vermont Leads is being funded by just one union—the 1.9 million-member Service Employees, which has no members working in the state and failed to affiliate the still-independent Vermont State Employees Association more than a decade ago.

During the actual press conference held yesterday at the Pavilion Auditorium by Vermont Leads, there did not appear to be much division and the efforts of the Vermont Workers Center were explicitly recognized.  Futhermore, if truth be told, the effort to push single payer has long been supported by well organized and well funded outside interests.  See the following True North Reports articles on the astroturf movement behind this effort here and here.  The notion that this was strictly a local grass roots effort until the appearance of SEIU is completely ludicrous.  In addition to fact that this effort has had a ton of well funded and well organized out of state support from the beginning, supposed “hearings” on health care reform, held by taxpayer supported political entities, have been little more than poorly disguised public relations efforts to sell the single payer push.

Despite this fact, the unveiling of “Vermont Leads” was promoted at the press conference as an answer to the unproven notion that the advocates of single payer are being grossly outspent by insurance and pharmaceutical companies.  In an age when IRS 990 forms can be accessed by through the Internet, there is no excuse for not backing up such claims.  There is ample evidence that outside money is flowing into Vermont from out of state to fund an effort to promote Vermont as a petri dish for enacting single payer nationally, but there is no evidence that the opponents of single payer are even in the same ball park when it comes to funding.  Where are the paid lobbyists working for any of the groups that oppose single payer?  Where are the 990 reports, which indicate that Vermont single payer opponents are receiving a large influx of cash?  If the national groups are bypassing these groups, where is the evidence of a public relations efforts paid for by such out of state interests?  Where are the taxpayer funded initiatives to inform the public about alternative approaches to reform?  Not one bit of evidence has been put forward to support the notion that the advocates of single payer are playing David to their opponents Goliath when in comes to funding a campaign.  All the information I have seen from actual 990 forms points to exactly the opposite conclusion.

Now that I have dealt with a primary justification for unveiling the SEIU funded “air war”, I would like to address the main thrust what “Vermont Leads”  has in mind.  The conference started out by acknowledging the the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, but insisting that it would not impact their efforts.  The Vermont effort goes farther than Obamcare and should be looked at as some kind of model regardless of what happens to Obamacare.  From there a brief discussion of their values was undertaken, with the notion of healthcare as a human right being the central focus.  The rhetoric of healthcare as a human right was mixed with the assertion that everyone should have access to widely available, affordable and inexpensive healthcare.  The latter assertion is not being disputed by the opponents of single payer.  The question is over the meaning of asserting healthcare as a human right.  Those who advocate this position usually imply that it involves insisting that it puts a duty of government to provide healthcare.  Such an assertion is derived from the European notion of positive rights that declare what government must do for you.  The American notion of rights is one of negative rights where the government is prevented from doing something to you.  This notion limits the role of government and assumes that humans prosper more when they are free to do so without the heavy hand of government.  In other words, the issue is not widely available, quality healthcare at an affordable price, but the role of government in achieving that goal.

After affirming their values, the discussion went to discussing a strategy designed to sell their vision  to a public that does not necessarily share those values.  There was a media training session by Wendell Potter on how to communicate effectively with people who are undecided to get them to support single payer.  Potter, who had been head of communications for the insurance giant CIGNA, explained how the insurance industry used marketing strategies to defeat “reform” initiatives. In addition, Will Robinson, a partner with The New Media Firm, spoke on the latest in using old and new media to communicate about single payer and health care reform.  Potter kept insisting that the advocates of single payer are being grossly out spent and that corporations across the nation are scared of what Vermont is doing and are working to oppose it.  Again, as mentioned earlier, this was simply asserted with no evidence offered.  The whole justification for the need for the campaign being described was based on this argument.

The essence of the strategy was to find emotional stories of people who are suffering with healthcare related issues and insist that single payer would solve the problem.  Logic, reason and policy needs to be de-empathized in favor of emotionally riveting stories.  The fact that some people are hurting and that there is a need for reform is not what is being disputed.  The dispute is over the direction of reform.