The fight for universal health care

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Politico |

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Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now, takes nothing for granted. On the very day last week that President Barack Obama released his budget proposal, which includes a $634 billion reserve fund to overhaul the nation’s health care system, Kirsch was running a two-day training session for his group’s 150 field organizers, looking ahead to a nationwide battle over health care reform.

Kirsch’s group — a progressive coalition that claims 725 member organizations, including unions, MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress Action Fund — is pushing to tighten regulations on insurance companies. And his organization favors a public insurance plan option, which critics charge is a back-door attempt to adopt a single-payer, government-run health care system.

Health Care for America Now grabbed the political spotlight by scoring endorsements of its principles from Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and 188 members of Congress who, according to the group, believe that “quality, affordable health care for all in America should be at the top of the legislative agenda for the new president and Congress in 2009.”

POLITICO caught up with Kirsch last week during a break in the group’s training session. Here are excerpts of the interview.

What do you think of Obama’s address and budget rollout?

He’s made it clear to all the naysayers that he’s serious about winning a guarantee of quality, affordable coverage for everyone this year, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is. It’s a promise that we believe he’s made for a while, and I think the political establishment in Washington finally realizes he’s serious.

What’s the biggest asset you can bring to bear to help pass health care reform?

First of all, that the heart and soul of Health Care for America Now is outside the Beltway, with organizers in 41 states who are mobilizing more than 600 state-based organizations and thousands of activists in each state. And then you combine that with a coalition that represents huge, powerful organizations with 30 million members and a big presence inside the Beltway.

How many years have you worked for health care reform?

[I] started in 1986, when it became clear that the next time a Democrat was elected to the White House, health care reform would be a major issue. Took till 1992 for that prediction to be true.

Why do you do what you do?

I do it because I get really, really angry at the fact that we have a country with such incredible wealth and that we don’t find a way to share that with everybody. And there’s no better example than a health care system that spends so much more than any other country in the world and has such extraordinary inequities.

Registered R, D or independent?

I’m actually registered in the Working Families Party in New York.

What is that?

It’s a party whose membership are labor and community organizations that work to support candidates and issues, progressive candidates and issues. … Under New York law, it’s actually able to endorse main-party candidates. It endorses … progressive Democratic candidates, and it’s a way of helping the Democratic Party be more true to its progressive roots.

What’s the Democratic/Republican split among HCAN employees?

I don’t know what their registration is, but I can tell you that we’re all passionate progressives.

If HCAN ran the world, what three health care reforms would become law?

Everyone in the country would have health care that’s truly affordable, based on their ability to pay. Their coverage would be comprehensive coverage and would be really accessible in every community. And the third thing is everyone would have a choice of either a regulated private health insurance plan or a public health insurance plan.

What reform ideas would be killed?

You wouldn’t have a system based on unregulated private health insurance, … taxing people’s health care benefits [or] … encouraging plans with high deductibles and minimal benefits.

What are three things that could kill universal health care reform efforts this year?

What could kill reform is a combination of the forces who really, really want to protect their profits in the system deciding to do a big public campaign, to really go public in attacking reform principles and therefore scaring the public generally about prospects of reform. …

[And] if Congress basically decides that it would rather put its head back in the sand and do minimum things rather than make some really, really tough decisions that are going to mean pissing off some powerful interests no matter which way they turn.

If you could eliminate one opponent from the health care debate, who would it be?

The polite thing to say is, “Oh, everybody has a role to play,” … but I would say … the insurance lobby.

I’m surprised it took you so long to answer that question.

I was thinking about others. There are a lot of groups that could potentially cause problems, but they’re going to be the most problematic.

Speaking of the insurance industry, what do you say to critics who argue the public plan is a back door to single-payer health care?

I’d say that we’re talking about a choice of public health insurance plans, and the only way it becomes a back door is if they don’t think they can compete with a public health insurance plan. And if they think their product is so good, they should be able to compete.

Where do you live?

I live temporarily in Washington, D.C. My wife and I moved down, have an eight-month lease, month-to-month afterward. But our home is in a rural town in upstate New York with 1,500 people outside of Albany.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not working?

Hiking or backpacking in the woods or the mountains.

How many hours a week do you work?

Right now, it’s probably about 60.

What’s your favorite getaway spot?

My favorite getaway spot is the top of Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Mass.

Married, kids, dogs, cats?

I’ve been married for 30 years, and we have three children and no pets.

BlackBerry, Treo or iPhone?

BlackBerry.

© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC

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