Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Truth about Bernie Sanders

I happened to be listening to Washington Journal this morning on the C-SPAN radio feed that I get through my XM Satellite receiver; so I got to hear John Barrasso, Republican Senator from Wyoming, fulminating over how bad things had become in the Senate health care debate. His example of how corrupt the Democrats had become was that they had even won over Independent Bernie Sanders with a sweetheart deal for his home state of Vermont. Since I have long admired Sanders for sticking to his progressive guns, I immediately put out feelers for an alternative account of this claim. While my usual search processes were impeded by my own battle with the health care system this morning, I can report that The Nation has now come out with an account of Sanders' deeds and some of his words behind those deeds.

That account was provided by Katrina vanden Heuvel on her Editor's Cut blog. It turns out that Sanders was pushing for a deal and that it was a deal that would probably benefit Vermont. However, what Barrasso seems to have missed is that the beneficiaries also included all of us who are still looking for some backbone of reform in the bill that has been cooking in the Senate. Here is vanden Heuvel's version of what apparently got Barrasso out of joint:

Without fanfare, the good Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has continued to work behind the scenes to champion community health centers--something he has done for years (also here). These non-profit, community-based facilities provide primary healthcare, dental care, mental health services, and low-cost prescription drugs on a sliding scale. As amendments were added in recent days to win over the Liebermans and Nelsons of the "greatest [undemocratic] deliberative body" in the world, Sanders made sure that a $10 billion increase in funding for the health centers was included.

"This is not gonna solve all the problems of the world," Senator Sanders told me yesterday. "But expanding access to high quality primary health care, and low-cost prescription drugs, and mental health counseling, and dental care--which is a big issue--this is a very significant step forward. If you walk into a health clinic and you have no insurance at all they will treat you on a sliding scale basis. So, that's affordable healthcare."

There has also been little news coverage of Sanders' fight to allow states waivers so they can move forward with their own "health insurance concepts, including single-payer." Such language is now in the Senate bill and Sanders is still working with Senator Ron Wyden to strengthen it. That is exactly how Canada developed its healthcare system, with a successful program incubated in Saskatchewan. This provision is actually stronger in the Senate bill--it didn't make it into the House version.

So, if Barrasso wanted to attack Sanders for tacking on a $10 billion commitment, he probably should have paid more attention to where the money would be going, rather than ranting about its magnitude. Yes, the process taking place in the Senate has been really ugly; and I do not see anything to be gained by sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring how flawed the results have been. Nevertheless, Sanders has been trying to work around the flaws and to provide at least a few cracks through which reform may flow. My guess is that Barrasso has a knee-jerk fear of anything that Sanders achieves; so he felt obliged to use his C-SPAN pulpit to come out with guns blazing, even if he wasn't too clear on where his guns were aimed!

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