NNPA National Correspondent and Editor-in-Chief
The line is drawn. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has pledged to kill any House health care bill that does not include a robust public option and organization members of the Black Leadership Forum (BLF) are rolling out an array of grassroots campaigns in support of passing health care reform overall.
“All of us combined, the organizations who make up the Black Leadership Forum, are going to begin a series of efforts across the nation – in our neighborhoods, in our churches, in our communities to pass comprehensive health care reform,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial and chair of the 34-member BLF.
“This effort is going to be far ranging. It’s not the kind of effort where we have a big sack of money to buy television commercials. But it is an effort that is going to appeal to people’s hearts and minds.”
CBC and BLF members spoke out in a joint press conference on Wed., Sept. 9. The conference marked the first time that Black elected officials and Black activists have held a joint gathering to help push through the reform that could very well become President Barack Obama’s legacy.
Later that evening, President Obama made a strong appeal to the nation that pundits had said was missing in his earlier advocacy for the health care bill.
“I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last,” he told the members of the House and Senate. “Our collective failure to meet this challenge – year after year, decade after decade – has led us to a breaking point. Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy.”
White House Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes said in an interview with the NNPA News Service that perceptions that Obama was not moving swiftly enough on clarifying the issues were wrong. She said he was listening to people at town halls and other gatherings during the month of August.
“I think he has believed that when he can talk to people and talk directly to them, that he’s able to explain and convey the level of importance around a particular issue,” Barnes said. “Once Congress was back in session, the status quo was not acceptable to Americans. Because of the amount of misinformation around death panels and immigration issues, it was time for the President to explain to the American people what he thinks is an important health care plan,” she said.
Although Black leaders have united to help push the bill through, they may split with Obama on the public option issue, which the President implies is optional as long as there is another affordable plan.
“The public option is only a means to that end – and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal,” Obama said.
Barnes pointed out that there are varying opinions about the public option even within the CBC.
“I think that there is a range of opinion even within the African American leadership in Congress. But, I think that leadership and the president are united around a single goal. If we don’t have adequate choice in competition; then we aren’t going to be able to address the cost issue. And, the public option is an excellent tool,” she said.
Still CBC Chair Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is adamant about the public option.
“We support health care reform that includes a robust public option like Medicare, a component of health care in which we are unwavering in our support,” she told reporters.
“The speaker [Nancy Pelosi] said that she doesn’t think the bill would pass without some form of a public option in the bill,” Lee said. “We are going to continue to fight and work very hard to make sure that that is included and is in all three of the House bills.”
Rep. Donna Christensen (D-VI), a medical doctor, argued that without a robust public plan there are no guarantees of reform, of lower rates or of inclusion for the uninsured.
“And, I might add that there is no need for a trigger,” said Christensen, co-chair of the CBC Health and Wellness Task Force.
The public option “trigger” is a compromise measure introduced by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R- Maine) that would phase in a government-backed health care insurer if private insurance companies fail to meet certain qualitative and cost-related benchmarks set by legislators by a certain time.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, also a BLF member, said his organization is increasing pressure on Congress to pass a public option, a lower-cost alternative to private health care that would be funded by the U.S. government. The public option is viewed by Black advocates as crucial given the disparate rate of unemployment and poverty in the Black community as well as what often amounts to poor quality health care.
“The NAACP has amassed a presence in 1,200 towns and cities across this country,” Jealous said.
“Let me be very clear, we are in the district of each Blue Dog [conservative Democrat] in this congress. And, we intend to roll out a campaign called ‘880’ because 880,000 Black people would be alive in this decade if we would have had real health care reform at the beginning of the last decade,” he said.