Grassroots Groups Step Up Health Care Push

5013485While members of the Senate Finance Committee met behind closed doors today to privately discuss health care reform, their liberal constituents were busy engaging in a very public discussion about giving consumers the option to choose a government-run health care plan.

Grassroots advocacy groups in recent days have launched public campaigns advocating for a health care reform bill that would give consumers the choice of signing up for a government-run plan, otherwise known as a "public option." Groups like MoveOn.org and Health Care for America Now are mobilizing their members and running television ads in states represented by congressmen playing a critical role in the health care reform debate.

Based on the progress of the debate, the public option proponents say Congress is listening. More and more senators have said they are open to the idea of a public option, and a new plan for health care reform that surfaced this week shows the House of Representatives is considering a public option as well.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday the House will vote on health care legislation by the end of July.

If key congressmen do not listen to supporters of the public plan, some say there may be consequences inflicted by activists in the next round of elections.

"We believe that real health care reform must include a public option," said Nita Chaudhary, a spokesperson for MoveOn.org. "Without one, I don't believe we will have fulfilled the mandate put out by the voters in November. Having a public health care option that would offer quality, affordable care for everyone is non-negotiable."

Health care reform is the top priority for MoveOn.org members, Chaudhary said. MoveOn, which has a political action committee as well as a nonprofit, progressive advocacy arm, has more than 3 million members. Its PAC spent more than $28 million to support Democratic candidates in the 2006 election cycle and played a significant role in the party's victory. It spent more than $38 million in the 2008 election.

Chaudhary said its members will be watching to see how Democratic representatives handle health care reform and will consider it in the 2010 election and the primaries.

"Our members aren't only going to be looking at party label," she said.

MoveOn began airing an ad promoting a public option last week on cable channels in Washington, D.C. and in Iowa and Montana -- the home states of Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

"We are not planning on resting until there is a public option as part of a comprehensive reform package," Chaudhary said.

The Health Care For America Now Campaign (HCFAN) is taking similar action. The campaign is comprised of more than 1,000 organizations in 46 states, including charities, unions, and political action committees. The group, along with the organizations it cooperates with, has mobilized some 300 organizers around the country to promote health care reform and particular elements of reform such as the choice of signing up for a public plan.

HCFAN had about 15,000 people participate in around 100 town hall meetings on health care in April, including 40 with members of Congress present. The group will hold 300 district meetings with members of Congress in May and another 300 in June. The group also started running ads this week in six states -- Indiana, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Oregon, Delaware, and Nebraska -- which are represented by senators who have not yet publicly signed on in support of a public option.

"We're confident we're going to get this," said Richard Kirsch, HCFAN's national campaign manager. "People like choice. They think the public option would give them the peace of mind private insurance wouldn't."

The group's message has had some sway over at least one senator -- last Friday, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) sent a letter to Health Care For America Now saying he looks forward to "discussing and considering" the inclusion of a public plan in health care legislation. The letter marked a policy reversal for the former Republican.

Chaudhary from MoveOn said the issue is one her group's members will consider closely in the 2010 Democratic primary in Pennsylvania.

"If (Specter) is not representing their concerns adequately and he's not supporting the administration's key priorities, they will certainly consider another candidate," she said. "Where Sen. Specter lands on these critical issues that affect people's lives, that's going to be the deciding factor."

Kirsch said he is very confident the Senate will include a public plan option in its health care reform legislation and is also optimistic the plan could win support from 60 senators, which would protect it from the threat of filibuster. Otherwise, he said, the bill will be passed through reconciliation, a process that allows legislation to be considered without being subject to filibuster.

"The point of having reconciliation is just that -- to not have to water down what's needed for the country," Kirsch said.