OAKLAND — Progressives must keep demanding a single-payer health care system to ensure that the reform package Congress eventually votes upon at least has a robust public option, Rep. Barbara Lee told local health care and community leaders Monday.

About 250 people attended the national heath care plan discussion that Lee, D-Oakland, hosted in the Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church on West MacArthur Blvd. Joining Lee on the dais were several Bay Area health policy experts, most of whom extolled a single-payer plan — in which one source of money, most likely the government, pays all health care providers — but acknowledged that's essentially a political impossibility.

But they said pushing for a single-payer plan will build support for the proposal unveiled last week by the Democratic chairman of the Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees, which at least includes a public alternative to private insurance.

"At no point can we be silent," Lee told the crowd, adding President Barack Obama wants "a democratic movement of people" to push for the best possible plan under the political circumstances. "Health care should not be driven by a profit motive. I don't believe it should be an industry — I believe it's a human right."


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Panelist Dr. James Kahn — a health care systems researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and president of the California Physicians Alliance, a single-payer advocacy nonprofit — said eliminating or drastically reducing the $200 billion per year wasted on unneeded health care paperwork — marketing, contract bureaucracy, grappling with hundreds of different health plans — over a decade would pay for major reform by itself.

Kahn agreed with Lee that "pushing for the ideal is critical to getting the best we can. ... We need a real public option that looks a lot like Medicare and perhaps a lot like single-payer."

Panelist Denise Herd, a University of California, Berkeley, associate professor of public health, said health disparities between whites and minorities have widened enormously in recent decades. In Alameda County, African-Americans now live an average of 7.8 years less than whites, with far higher incidences of diabetes, AIDS, heart disease and other illnesses, she said, arguing that true health care reform must address such disparities by providing financial, cultural and linguistic access to services for all.

Lee noted the "Tri-Committee proposal" incorporates parts of the Health Equity and Accountability Act introduced earlier this month by the Congressional Black Caucus, which she chairs, along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Panelist David Sayen, regional administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the Obama Administration and Congress have "already made a down payment on reform" via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act economic stimulus effort, providing up to $20 billion for electronic medical records that could cut costs while saving lives; $1 billion for expanded preventive care; more money for the National Health Service Corps, which offers scholarships and loan-repayment programs to put medical, dental and mental health providers in areas with shortages; and so on.

Congressional Republicans are mounting a barrage of criticism against the Democrats' plan, claiming it'll cost too much, reduce patients' options and amount to a bureaucratic power grab.

"Their constituents are without health care just like mine are," Lee responded outside Monday's forum, adding Republican lawmakers aren't being honest with the public. "They're demagoguing this. This is a serious crisis in our country."

Reach Josh Richman at 510-208-6428 or jrichman@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read the Political Blotter at www.ibabuzz.com/politics