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National health care effort holds Mass. kickoff

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
National health care effort holds Mass. kickoff
At-large City Council candidate Felix G. Arroyo (left) speaks during the local kickoff event for the Health Care for America Now campaign, held at the offices of the Service Employees International Union Local 615 on Saturday, April 4, 2009. The campaign is aimed at creating a national public health care system featuring income-based rates. (Photo: Yawu Miller)

As a candidate in the heat of last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama called for national health care reform.

“It’s clear that the time has come — right now — to solve this problem,” he said during an Oct. 5, 2008, event in Asheville, N.C.

On the heels of that declaration and Obama’s election to the White House, a nationwide coalition of organized labor and community activist groups is pushing for a national public health care plan that would make health insurance affordable for all U.S. residents.

Representatives of local unions, community-based organizations and elected officials gathered at the Service Employees International Union Local 615’s West Street office last Saturday for the Massachusetts kickoff of the Health Care for America Now (HCAN) campaign.

“We have a historic opportunity to get health care for everyone in this country this year,” said Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, during HCAN’s local launch.

HCAN counts among its members nearly 700 organizations in 46 states, representing a total of 30 million people. The national coalition is calling on Congress to pass a law that would create a public health care system similar to the one now operating in Massachusetts.

The public system for which HCAN is advocating would cover all health care needs, including preventative care and treatment for chronic conditions, with health care premiums, deductibles and co-pays from public and private insurers tied to consumers’ income levels.

HCAN says the proposed legislation would give government greater latitude to set and enforce regulations governing private insurance companies and combat racial disparities in health care service.

“Black infant mortality rates are as high today as they were during the Dukakis administration,” noted Elmer Freeman, executive director of the Center for Community Health Education, Research and Service at Northeastern University. “It’s not just about access — it’s about how you’re treated.”

The HCAN effort, coming at the beginning of Obama’s tenure in the White House, is reminiscent of a similar push undertaken in the first year of President Bill Clinton’s administration. That effort failed after health insurance companies banded together to fight it, pouring millions of dollars into a public relations campaign against health care reform.

This time around, health care advocates again face an uphill battle, according to U.S. Rep. Michael E. Capuano, D-Mass.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work,” said Capuano, whose congressional district includes most of Boston, as well as Cambridge, Chelsea and Somerville. “It appears it will be a tough fight in this economy.”

Capuano, however, said he would vote for any health care reform bill that expands coverage.

“It’s absolutely right to be doing this,” he said. “If a bill in front of me is better than what we have now, I’m going to vote for it.”

Felix G. Arroyo, a candidate for an at-large seat on the City Council in the upcoming citywide election, said the fight will depend not on Congress, but on the strength of the national coalition of 600 organizations that HCAN has put together.

“I’m not asking Congress to win this fight for us,” said Arroyo, son of former at-large councilor Felix D. Arroyo. “I’m asking Congress to stand out of the way. The American people are going to win this.”