As hope for a ‘public option’ fades, doctors pick up banner for government-run health insurance for all

As the “public option” banner carried by the Obama administration during the nation’s health care reform debate begins to sag, some activist doctors are picking up the slack — and then some. While a recent poll suggests most doctors favor a future with both public and private health insurance options, some doctors would prefer to deal only with a single public plan.

Updated 9:45 p.m.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — As the “public option” banner carried by the Obama administration during the nation’s health care reform debate begins to sag, some activist doctors are picking up the slack — and then some.

President Obama has been talking about a public option – a government-run health insurance plan that would compete with private insurance plans — as a solution for unaffordable health insurance premiums. A majority of doctors — 62.9 percent — surveyed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said they supported proposals to expand health care coverage that included both public and private health care options.

But some doctors would rather deal with only a public option.

Six “Mad as Hell” doctors from Oregon are bringing their campaign in support of a single-payer health care system to Cleveland on Sept. 28 during a town hall meeting hosted by Cleveland Jobs with Justice. Mad As Hell Doctors is a small group of Oregon doctors that defines single-payer as “a system of health care insurance that redirects privately paid insurance premiums into a single public fund that covers everyone.”

The Oregon doctors left Portland on Sept. 8 in their Care-a-Van — a repainted recreational vehicle named Winnie — for a 22-day tour to stump for their cause. “We’re mad as hell because our health care system is run by people who profit from illness,” said Dr. Paul Hochfeld, lead Mad As Hell Doctor and an emergency room physician in Corvallis, in his group’s release about the Cleveland event. “The rest of the civilized world has test driven single payer, and it works. But elected officials in America won’t even allow a discussion.”

The Oregon doctors want President Obama to take the health care reform discussion off the negotiating table until spring. They also want the president and Congress to reconsider House Resolution 676, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Cleveland Democrat, which calls for “expanded and improved Medicare for all.”

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Last week, Physicians for a National Health Program helped launch a Harvard Medical School study that estimated nearly 45,000 annual deaths are associated with lack of health insurance. Physicians for a National Health Program espouses a single-payer, government-run health care system in the United States.

“When politicians refuse to do single payer, they are protecting the profits of insurers  and sacrificing lives,” Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, study co-author, professor of medicine at Harvard and a primary care physician in Cambridge, Mass., said during an interview with MedCity News last week. A single-payer system would lower costs because it would cut high-cost insurers out of the market, Woolhandler said.

Also last week, Doctors for America‘s Ohio activists drew 200 people at a health care reform forum at Centerville High School near Dayton, according to the Dayton Daily News. Doctors for America bills itself as a grassroots group of more than 14,000 doctors in all 50 states who are “committed to passing meaningful health care reform.” Doctors for America supports a public option, though not one that excludes private insurers.

Even the American College of Physicians, a national organization of internists, supports a single-payer system in which the government pays health care costs (pdf) as one way to get a “high performance health care system with universal access.”

Traditionally, doctors have worked through professional organizations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), to make their policy desires known, said Jeff Smith, director of government relations for the Ohio State Medical Association, an AMA affiliate.

Both the national and Ohio associations oppose a government-run health insurance option, Smith said. But the groups could get behind a plan for non-profit cooperatives that coordinate care and coverage such as the one proposed by the Senate Finance Committee last week (pdf), Smith said.

The different and sometimes competing messages of the groups could make it tough for doctors to be well-understood in Washington, he said. “It is challenging when you have groups that splinter off.”