Public Option Dead? Barbara Lee Says No

You think the public option for health coverage is dead? Try telling that to Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Never known for going along (she was the lone member of Congress to vote against giving President Bush a virtual blank check to go to war after 9/11) or for mincing words, she wants it known that no health reform battle — other than that for single-payer — is over.

“It’s all about give and take,” she said tonight; “we gave single payer.”

The Representative from California’s 9th District was at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club to talk about her new book, Renegade for Peace and Justice.  But the conversation with KQED TV host Belva Davis and the Q&A session with a largely friendly audience tilted immediately, and  heavily, toward health reform. Has the Administration lost control of the debate? Not in Lee’s opinion. “Mainstream media coverage has been very biased,” she observed in opening the Q&A session. “The focus has been on the ruckus made by a small percentage of people, who probably didn’t vote for President Obama. I didn’t see CNN covering my Town Hall meeting.”

Because “we spent over a trillion dollars on this war that didn’t have to be fought,” Lee said, the issue of health reform is now “all about choice, and about competition.” And before either of those get to the public, congressional give-and-take will lead to a final bill. As current Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and member of several powerful committees, Lee expects to play an active part in that process. “We will insist on a bill that has a strong public option,” she says. “At least 60 members are saying the public option is key to their support.”

The new book was enjoying brisk sales, but health reform comments drew the loudest applause. One audience member told me at the end of the event that “Congresswoman Lee won’t ever get medals for moderation, but I’m not throwing in the towel if she’s not.” We were both leaving a few minutes before the final gavel; he said he was on his way home to start sending out more e-mails.

A Novel Idea for Healthcare Reform

Not long ago I attended an event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, featuring a speech by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors Chair Christina Romer. Dr. Romer’s talk, “The Great Credit Freeze and the U.S. Economy,” was all about improving healthcare while slowing down the growth of its cost. We know we can’t reduce costs, she said; what we hope to do is reduce the rate of increase. And one way to contain healthcare costs might be to find out what the patient wants. Imagine.

This observation was not in direct response to a question, but could well have been. Dr. Romer was asked, by more than one audience member, about how to address excessive expenditures at the beginning and end of life. A grossly disproportionate share of costs, she conceded, “are spent on the last six months of life. And one thing we’re not doing enough of is letting patients express what they want.”

If the issue were not so grim and sorrowful it would call for a “Well, duh.”

It would be hard to find many people saying they’d like their last few days on this planet to be spent semi-conscious or in pain and distress, hooked up to a tangle of wires and tubes in a blue-lit hospital room (see Scott Bowen’s post 7/14.) But this is in fact the system we have created: we focus on prolongation of life without regard to quality, we aid and abet doctors who equate death with failure, we never talk about our own mortality as if in silence we can become immortal. Most of us would choose to die at home, properly medicated for pain and surrounded by our loved ones; most of us will die in an institution

Audience members had a wide assortment of questions, and Dr. Romer had plenty more to say. But finding out what the patient wants, and acting accordingly, is surely one excellent path towards better care – and even contained cost growth — and everyone in America could begin that process today.

It is an easy solution, even if only a small, partial solution, to this piece of the muddled medi-puzzle of our healthcare system: talk. Tell your doctors, caregivers, loved ones what you do or don’t want. Write it down. Use the forms universally available (Advance Directives, POLST, others.) You might even wind up with what you actually want in your final days. Christina Romer is on your side.

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