Time for Braley's Populist Caucus to speak up on health care

Congress is getting to work on the details of health care reform, and a major battleground will be whether to include a strong public health insurance option for all Americans.

Republicans like Senator Chuck Grassley are revving up their scare tactics about “government-run” health care. Coalitions of Democrats who back a public option are also taking shape in the House and the Senate.

The new Populist Caucus led by Congressman Bruce Braley (IA-01) has yet to weigh in on the specifics of health care reform. That needs to change soon if Braley is serious about turning this caucus into a voice for the middle class in the House.

More thoughts on this subject are after the jump.

Braley rolled out the Populist Caucus with 23 founding members in February. The accompanying press release listed six key priorities for the group, including “Providing affordable, accessible, quality health care for all Americans.”

Speaking to Chris Weigant of the Huffington Post in March, Braley said the Populist Caucus differed from the Progressive Caucus because

the Progressive Caucus tends to focus on a broad range of foreign and domestic policies. The Populist Caucus is the only caucus in Congress devoted solely to addressing middle class economic issues.

When Weigant asked whether the Populist Caucus planned to endorse or introduce specific legislation, Braley responded,

We’re going to be increasingly active on legislation and plan to be outspoken on these core economic issues. I think one issue you’ll see a lot of activity from the Populist Caucus is on trade. Irresponsible trade policies can cost Americans jobs, and we’ll be standing up for fair trade. Another big issue we all want to influence is the healthcare debate. Middle class families are being squeezed from a thousand directions these days, but one of the biggest issues is the rising cost of healthcare. Many companies are reducing benefits in the midst of this recession, and families lose coverage when breadwinners become unemployed. The healthcare debate is beginning, and I think we’re well-positioned to influence it.

The health care debate is now underway. Four caucuses representing House Democrats have sent an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders advocating “a robust public health insurance plan like Medicare” as part of health care reform. I haven’t received any statement from Braley’s office regarding the question of a public option, and I couldn’t find anything on the Populist Caucus pages of Braley’s official website either.

I don’t meant to knock Braley. He’s a hard-working representative, and I like what he’s doing on a wide range of issues. During the first week of May alone he introduced a bill on school nutrition and helped broker a compromise on a bill that would “take older, gas-guzzling vehicles off the road and spur new car sales by providing consumers with a $3,000 to $7,500 incentive to buy more fuel-efficient cars or trucks.”

That said, Braley chose to create a Populist Caucus and promised that it would influence the conversation on health care. Rightly so, because access to affordable health care is one of the biggest problems facing the American middle class, and this year’s health care reform debate may result in one of the most important bills passed this decade.

My best guess for why the Populist Caucus has not yet jumped into the health care debate is that its 23 members do not agree on the most contentious issue: whether the government should make a public health insurance option available to all Americans.

Quite a few founding Populist Caucus members also belong to the Progressive Caucus, which strongly backs a public option. On the other hand, some Populist Caucus members, including Braley, belong to the New Democratic Coalition. The New Democrats have a reputation for being sympathetic to corporate interests, and at least two New Democrats have expressed concern about the impact a public health insurance program would have on private insurers.

Although finding consensus in the Populist Caucus may not be easy, the group needs to take a position on key aspects of health care reform. Braley said it himself: the rising cost of health care is “one of the biggest issues” facing the middle class.

I am seeking comment on this matter from Braley’s office and will follow up when I learn more about where the Populist Caucus stands on a public health insurance option.

UPDATE: Open Left user noonan infers from Steve Kagen’s website that he is against a public option. If his reading is correct, that’s one of the 23 Populist Caucus members against a public option.

Apparently Kagen thinks transparency and letting people shop around for the best deal on health care will solve our problems. Frankly, that is a joke. If you have a medical emergency, there is no time to shop around and figure out which hospital offers the best deal. Until you need medical care, no one ever really knows what their health insurance will cover. That’s why millions of people with health insurance end up in debt after having a medical crisis.

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