Democrats mount grass-roots effort for health care reform

Organizing for America launches a major health care initiative this weekend.
As Democrats on Capitol Hill move toward revealing landmark bills to drastically reform the nation’s health care system, the White House and the Democratic National Committee are increasing efforts to rally public support.

On Saturday, the DNC’s advocacy arm, Organizing for America, is sponsoring thousands of meetings across the country. Organizers say tens of thousands of activists will talk about how to change the system, hear encouragement from President Obama — in an address on DVD — and be recruited to engage in other activities throughout the summer called “campaign for health care reform.” “Saturday is the major kickoff. That is just the kickoff of a lot more action that will be happening,” said Jeremy Bird, Organizing for America’s deputy director. “As people come together, they will be planning on going door to door. They will be planning phone conversations that they will be having. They will be planning additional service events.” In March, the group sponsored a canvassing effort and collected hundreds of thousands of pledges of support for the administration’s budget bill. It has also mounted an effort to support the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. The health care effort, though, will be the most sustained on a key agenda item for the president. Activists on all sides of the issue are gearing up, knowing the that next few months will be crucial to whether major change to the health care system will be enacted. The first public outlines of a bill could be unveiled within the next week. The Senate Finance and Health, Education and Labor panels are trying to pass measures by the end of the month. Obama has asked both the House and Senate to act before their August recess. The White House and Democrats are trying to build momentum that will help overcome the huge obstacles and many interest groups that could derail the major overhaul they envision.

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In a conference call last week with volunteers for Organizing For America, the president tried to rally supporters by reiterating the economic costs the administration has emphasized: Americans now spend more on health care than food or housing, health care costs have doubled in the past decade, and fixing it will greatly improve the nation’s fiscal situation. “I think the status quo is unacceptable and that we’ve got to get it done this year. If we don’t get it done this year, we’re not going to get it done,” Obama said. Listen to the call The White House is leaving the drafting of specific bills to Congress, although administration officials are in close contact with members and their aides. The president weighed in with a letter this week to key Senate committee Chairmen Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Max Baucus, D-Montana. Obama supported the idea of requiring all Americans to acquire health insurance and of offering a new government insurance option, one of the most contentious elements, as many Republicans have said they oppose that concept. Recognizing that a majority of Americans say they favor major reform and even are in favor of increased government influence to lower costs and increase coverage, Republicans have come up with their own proposals that emphasize choice. They say this weekend’s efforts will not help build consensus. “There is a bipartisan effort that could be made here that could result in broad-based support for real changes in our health care system that the American people want,” said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who leads a House GOP task force. “I would like to be part of that. Lots of Republicans would, too, but we can’t get through the door to be part of this discussion. “Activating the grass-roots effort from the campaign is one way to keep your campaign effort alive. It is not a particularly effective way to create a bipartisan solution to an important problem.” This weekend’s effort will not only begin a lobbying campaign. The DNC says it will collect real-life examples of the problems with today’s system and will use them to help build public support for change. “We are going to be getting out these stories and putting a real face on the need for health care reform,” Bird said. “We are going be showing these stories to elected members. We are going to be publicizing them in every single way we can. And our volunteers will be out there talking about the stories.” As the first legislative action on the issue nears, interest groups involved in all sides are expected to ramp up their efforts. Conservatives for Patient Rights, which is pushing for less government involvement and is led by former Columbia/HCA executive Rick Scott, just launched a $1.1 million campaign, Health Care for America. On the other side, a coalition of groups pushing for major reform that includes a government insurance option says it will soon release ads and plans to bring 5,000 people to Washington on June 25 to lobby members of Congress.