God bless Ed Garvey. His annual progressive rally, Fighting Bob Fest, drew great speakers and thousands of attendees to demand health care reform and denounce the power of industry lobbyists. Grassroots events like this huge open-air town hall meeting, held last weekend in Baraboo, are competing with what one speaker called the "cash roots," the industry-funded message that's been dominating the health care reform debate.
Wendell Potter, the eloquent former health insurance executive who now works for the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, said he came to Bob Fest "to apologize to you for the role I played for 15 years in cheating you out of health care reform."
Potter knows all about the "cash roots" message because he helped write it. Now he has the eerie experience of listening to Republicans in Congress and their constituents repeating the talking points he once drafted, echoed by ordinary citizens who have turned out to oppose health care reform at town hall meetings.
As he told me in an interview, "Unwitting spokespeople for the insurance industry [have] bought into the lies the industry shills are telling them."
The opposition, he notes, is working from a script written by the insurance companies. Its code words include "government bureaucrats," "socialism" and "government-run health care." Instead, he says, "We should be worrying about Wall Street-run health care."
The irony, Potter points out, is that insurance company bureaucrats are the ones denying needed care. If they don't keep a big chunk of the money they collect from customers as profits, the companies' stock price sinks. So their incentive is to withhold care.
Wall Street, not the government, is coming between you and your doctor.
It's a bad sign that Potter's own former employer, CIGNA, has seen its stock price increase 50% in the last three months because Wall Street is not worried Congress will pass serious reform.
The next few weeks, he says, will be "some of the most important in our nation's history."
I agree, and after hearing Wisconsin progressives rally for health care reform at Bob Fest, it was easy to be optimistic. But then, when I was driving home from Baraboo, I tuned in National Public Radio to hear a big story with raucous audio clips of the anti-health-care-reform marchers in Washington the same weekend.
"Some carried signs reading, 'No we can't,'" reported Allison Keyes. "One banner featured a picture of TV actor Mr. T with the caption: 'I pity my grandchildren.' And there were giant posters calling the president a liar and socialist."
In the current debate, the proponents of true reform have been badly outspent and out-organized by the national anti-reform machine - including industry lobbyists who are helping to draft some of the legislation now before Congress.
Some of the fine print in the industry-written bills, says Potter, would stick people with deductibles so high they would go bankrupt if they ever had to go to the hospital.
If the national legislation that emerges in the next few weeks turns out to be, as Potter puts it, the "Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act," the best solution to the health care crisis might be back here at home. State-level efforts are making more headway than the national drive to expand health care.
In Wisconsin, where progressive ideas including workmen's compensation originated, there is a single-payer health care bill in each house of the state Legislature called the Wisconsin Health Security Act. Under the bill, every resident of the state would receive comprehensive care, with no co-pays or deductibles.
When people ask Wendell Potter what they can do about the health care crisis, he tells them to call the local office of their federal legislators. He closed his speech at Bob Fest by reading out the phone numbers for Rep. Ron Kind in La Crosse and Sen. Herb Kohl. The same goes for our state legislators.
"Tell the people who work for you, who you hired with your votes, to do the right thing," Potter said.
Hearing from constituents can make a big difference, particularly to the progressives who are under tremendous pressure to compromise and pass a very minimal plan.
Before September is over, House bill 676 - the Kucinich Amendment for single-payer health care - is supposed to come up for a vote. The entire Wisconsin delegation should be pressed to vote for it. Likewise, the best tribute to Bob La Follette and our state's progressive tradition would be for Gov. Doyle and the Legislature to pass the Wisconsin Health Security Act, showing the way for the rest of the country.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.