A Faint Pulse

Universal health care, a concept left for dead, twitches back to life.

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Gordon calls health care reform "the next great social - uprising." - Walter  Novak
Gordon calls health care reform "the next great social uprising."
At exactly 7 p.m., Jerry Gordon calls to order the monthly meeting of his fellow idealists. They're known as the Single Payer Action Network (SPAN), a lofty name for a dozen people sitting in a drafty union hall.

It's a turnout unworthy of a cockfight, let alone a "network." But then, supporters of universal health care have always had to find strength in something besides numbers.

Bill and Hillary Clinton tried to sell the country on the concept in 1994. Voters instead went for Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. Then HMOs broke out the party favors.

Eight years later, Gordon and his SPAN cohorts hold a smaller ambition of reviving the issue in Ohio. They want lawmakers to create a statewide network that guarantees health coverage for every Ohioan. They have yet to work out the details, and they lack broad political backing and money. It doesn't matter. They're flush with a sense of destiny.

"One of my favorite quotes is from Victor Hugo: 'Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come,'" Gordon says.

It's the kind of remark that lends a rose-colored tint to the glasses Gordon sometimes wears. But SPAN's 73-year-old chief organizer can rightly claim to know a genuine grassroots effort when he sees one. A former lawyer and longtime labor activist, he laid down his share of shoe leather during the civil rights marches of the 1960s. Universal health care, he insists, represents "the next great social uprising."

In recent months, SPAN has rung up endorsements from the United Auto Workers, a smattering of state legislators, and a handful of physicians' and women's groups. The Universal Health Care Action Network has witnessed a similar surge. Signs of life have emerged even in the General Assembly, where lawmakers -- so wedded to the free market that they seem ready to privatize public restrooms -- are weighing initiatives to lower drug costs and improve senior care.

Health care advocates note that evidence of the private system's failings is both damning and everywhere: 4,500 unemployed LTV workers and 30,000 retirees stand to lose benefits in coming weeks. The same will happen to 2,000 TRW workers three months after their plant closes in June. They will join an estimated 1.5 million Ohioans who already lack health insurance.

"The problem is too big to ignore," says SPAN member Betty Boyce, a retired LTV employee. "You can't just keep saying private [industry] is going to take care of it."

But the odds on deeper reform remain no better than those on legislators voting themselves a pay cut. Congress has reacted to the crisis by passing a resolution that could be dubbed the National Lip Service Act, since it promises only to delay the issue until 2004. U.S. Representative Sherrod Brown (D-Lorain), who favors swifter action, offers a simple reason for the foot-dragging: "Not enough members of Congress know working-class people."

Nor have mass layoffs statewide pushed the right-leaning General Assembly to anything more than token change. Representative Greg Jolivette, chairman of the Health and Family Services Committee, minces no words. "It's too big a bite," the Hamilton Republican says of universal care. "I can't see it happening." The Taft administration cares even less for the subject. Interview requests with the governor's office went unanswered.

Meanwhile, most Democrats are too busy being ignored by the Republican majority to rally for reform. Representative Dale Miller (D-Cleveland) is one of the few lone wolves who bays for the cause. Author of a bill to reduce prescription drug costs, he backs SPAN and its call for cradle-to-grave coverage funded by the state.

Miller, like most advocates, sidesteps specifics on how to best build a public system, the better to avoid the sort of death by details the Clinton plan suffered. More important is the broad message.

"I don't think universal health care is pie in the sky at all," he says. "Look at all the other major industrialized nations of the world -- all of them have some form of national health care."

It's a crucial point. A public system helps lower a company's overhead, enabling foreign auto manufacturers, for example, to build cars for $800 to $1,200 less than their U.S. counterparts. By contrast, American companies spend more on health care than on steel. The competitive disadvantage has Northeast Ohio's blue-collar workers streaming into unemployment offices instead of factories, says UAW Regional Director Warren Davis.

"Quiet crisis?" he says, referring to The Plain Dealer series that attempts to chronicle the region's woes. "LTV, TRW, the economy crumbling around us -- this is not a quiet crisis. It's shouting out loud."

Gordon wants the shouting turned into cries for reform. In the simplest terms, he says, organized labor could provide the political muscle and the bodies SPAN lacks. Yet notwithstanding the UAW's support, unions have been slow to warm to the idea. The United Steelworkers remains more concerned with securing short-term medical benefits for its members. John Ryan, head of the Cleveland AFL-CIO, says that kind of immediate need trumps the far-reaching -- and still far-fetched -- ideal of universal coverage.

"Public health care is a fine idea," he says, "but when you take a look at the political landscape, you better have a strategy to get us there." Part of that strategy could include Miller's bill, which would provide discount prescription cards for the uninsured, with the state negotiating better prices from drug makers and picking up more of the tab. The measure would offer relief to patients while also nudging the state closer to universal care -- a gradual approach that could prevent the cause from once more being derailed.

Then again, even that modest proposal looks to be a long shot. Miller's initiative has stalled while another drug bill, smaller in scope but backed by Republicans, moves ahead. "It's going to be a tough road," he says.

But the stiff wind blowing against reform doesn't slow Gordon's stride. While the pragmatist in him realizes incremental change is needed, his inner optimist hates taking baby steps. He prefers to march as he did decades ago toward racial equality. Without that greater purpose, he says, the new crusade will stay trapped in a drafty union hall.

"You can't build a social movement with a Band-Aid philosophy. Where would civil rights be, with that kind of attitude?"

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