By Kay Tillow
October 29, 2019
In the years since 2003 when Congressman John Conyers, Jr. first introduced HR 676, his national single payer, improved Medicare for All legislation, he often organized public briefings to promote the issue. Conyers would reserve a room somewhere on Capitol Hill, Physicians for a National Health Program would provide a speaker, and all of Congress and their staffers would be invited to attend. This was an educational campaign that escalated in 2009 when health care was on the nation’s agenda, but excluded from the discussion by Senator Max Baucus who controlled the health law in his Finance Committee.
Single payer activists from around the country would travel to DC to visit their representatives and organize attendance at the single payer briefings. Afterwards Conyers would always invite the advocates to come to his office overlooking the Capitol Dome. On one such occasion, as a rag tag group sat crowded between the bass and the drums and the other items collected from across the globe, Conyers asked us if we would join him in going to see Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Soon he was leading about ten of us at a fast clip, through the back ways and maze of corridors, negotiating with security officers to get us through as we made our way to Pelosi’s office. We were told that the speaker was not available. Conyers said that we would wait for her.
What was Pelosi’s staff to do? They covered their contempt with a layer of proper decorum. Conyers was the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and could not be forced to wait in the hallway. They ushered us into a room with a humongous conference table and brought out a bowl of M and M’s. We were an odd assortment of regular folks, some dressed in t shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes and dragging roller bags. Conyers assured the staff that we would wait as long as necessary.
After some time Pelosi did manage to come and see us. She couldn’t have the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee leading a sit in in her office, could she? She said something respectful about the Honorable Chairman leaving unspoken her irritation at the unannounced visit. Conyers told her that we were there to speak with her about single payer health care. With a straight face, Pelosi said that she was for it, had been for it for thirty years, how could she not be since she was from San Francisco?
Conyers spoke softly but firmly. In a polite and quiet voice he said that we had two requests. One was that before the health care bill came to a vote that there would be a hearing on single payer health care in at least one committee with jurisdiction. The second request was that before the health care bill was finalized that she would call for a full meeting of the entire Democratic caucus for a factual presentation on the advantages of single payer health care.
Pelosi shook hands round the room, but never answered the questions. And never fulfilled the requests. She continued to say that she supported improved Medicare for All as she worked to assure that it would never see the light of day.
Congressman John Conyers had introduced the model single payer bill, HR 676, Expanded and Improved Medicare into each Congress from 2003 to 2017. It was based on the Physicians’ Proposal for a national Health Plan. He worked to keep the HR 676 number as a help to those who were building the movement. He attended the modest conferences of the advocates and cheered with us as the endorsements of HR 676 rolled in and the movement grew.
He never used the bill to bargain for himself, but kept it intact—a foundation for a future when it would be possible to pass. That’s what he did with his Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday bill. Conyers introduced the legislation into the House shortly after King was assassinated. It took fifteen years and a movement of millions to make it a reality.
Upon the resignation of Congressman Conyers, the Medicare for All movement lost a champion. There were some who never thought he should be the lead sponsor of the single payer legislation—he worked too closely with communists and other radicals, they said, was too left and too independent of the mainstream Democrats.
His single payer legislation has suffered since his departure from the House. The new bill that replaced HR 676 does not convert the investor-owned, for-profit hospitals, nursing homes, and dialysis centers into not-for-profits. The for-profits remain to work havoc on the system, lower the quality, undermine the care, drive up the costs. HR 676’s outline of progressive financing is gone—replaced by nothing. The guarantee of two years of annual salary to displaced workers disappeared. An unnecessary and harmful Medicare buy-in has been inserted, giving credence to the false assertion that a transition period is needed. The Medicare Buy-in endangers the support needed to get to full single payer.
It will take some work to persuade the new single payer sponsor to restore these principled elements of the model bill. That task still lies ahead.
When heroic civil rights champion and humble seamstress Rosa Parks died, Conyers, who had given her work in her later years, arranged that her body would lie in state in the Capitol. She was the 29th person and the first woman to be given such an honor. Conyers should be so honored himself. That is not likely to happen.
But the movements that he nourished will find their strength. Medicare for All is featured in every debate and argued over in every blog and newspaper as people rise to claim a health care system that has already been established in every other wealthy country—and some not so wealthy. His work will yet bear fruit. Rest in power, Congressman Conyers. John Conyers, Jr. presente!
This article first appeared in the Daily Koz
All Unions Committee for Single Payer Health Care–HR 676
P. O. Box 17595
Louisville, KY 40217
P. O. Box 17595
Louisville, KY 40217