As one of about 130 small business owners invited to Washington early this week to lobby for health care reform, I often felt like the smallest bit player in an enormous unfolding drama. But in working to advance this just cause, we were assured, we all have a part to play.
We were there to tell our stories of how insane health care costs are bankrupting us. My own story came to the attention of the Colorado Public Interest Group, or COPIRG, when I wrote a column about the fact that my small family, consisting of just Marta and Carlos and me, spent over $30,000 last year, between our premiums and our out-of-pocket co-pays on health care.
From Colorado we were a community newspaper publisher from the Western San Juans, a bakery owner from Pueblo, a landscape company owner from Pueblo, a candy store owner from Fort Collins, and a few others: all of us struggling to provide health care for ourselves and our employees.
It is, by now, a familiar litany of woes: Insurance costs that keep going up as benefits are reduced; people whose coverage is dropped right when they need it most, because they are ill; pre-existing conditions making it impossible for people to get coverage; people trapped in the wrong job for fear of losing health insurance if they quit; families forced into bankruptcy.
The primary objection from the right to fixing all of this is that it will cost too much. But the problem with leaving it unfixed is that the status quo costs far more.
You might think Washington would be in a frenzy as the bills in Congress near a vote. There’s actually a lot more noise on cable television. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet told us that he remains hopeful that the legislation will get stronger, not weaker, as it gets closer to a vote. The politicians have a strong incentive to get this done right, he said.
Sen. Tom Harkin said that momentum is building as we near the finish line. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said that the opposition grows louder as victory drawn closer. All of the Washington insiders – the young staff members of advocacy organizations, USPIRG, the Main Street Coalition, Consumer Reports, and Small Business Majority, who jointly planned the Small Business DC Day; our elected representatives and their staff; and members of the Obama Administration – all emphasized that history is being made. We are closer than we’ve been in 70 years to finally reforming the health care system!
Speak out, we were urged. Small business is the engine of the American economy, and small business is crippled by health care costs. We need health care reform not only to stay healthy, but in order to do our part to repair the economy.
We in Colorado’s Third Congressional District are fortunate to be represented by three members of Congress who strongly support the effort: Rep. John Salazar, and senators Bennet and Mark Udall. To them, my message was simple: Thank you for your work and support. We – meaning small businesses – need you to succeed. And please don’t allow the legislation to be weakened as it moves to a final vote. Don’t compromise away the core reforms we need in order to win Joe Lieberman’s or Olympia Snowe’s vote.
Most of the other small business owners had been brought to Washington because they are not so fortunate. They are represented by key members of Congress who may just vote no because they can’t accept the public option if it’s included, or for some other abstruse reason. I sat next to a couple of small business owners from Connecticut who had an appointment to meet with their “maverick” senator, Joe Lieberman, the next day. They were pondering what they might say to him that might deter him from joining a Republican filibuster, as he has said he will do. Others from Louisiana were set to meet with Sen. Mary Landrieu; those from Nebraska had an appointment with Sen. Ben Nelson. Given the 60 Democratic votes needed to break a filibuster, every one of them is crucial.
“Even if we disagree on some specific details,” Sen. Landrieu said, at a meeting we all attended, “we agree that the status quo is not sustainable.” Is this a hint that in the end, even if she can’t weaken the public option, she’ll be there, on the right side?
In politics, the stakes don’t get any higher than this. In Washington, something big is about to happen. The payoff for electing President Obama is in sight. We are witnesses to history.