Single-payer supporters say this is the first time they've paired their cause with St. Paul's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march from Central High School to Concordia University. But the Minnesota Universal Health Care Coalition says the pairing actually makes perfect sense.
The organization's vice chair, Dr. Jim Hart, says King was deeply troubled by health care inequality. To prove that point, single-payer marchers carried banners quoting King that said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."
Hart says, like King, single-payer advocates believe that all Americans could and should have health care. But he says the U.S. will never achieve that goal with its current market-oriented system.
"We spend about 20-percent of our health care dollar on insurance functions, both at the insurance companies and at the clinics and hospitals that have to deal with this complicated system. So there would be ways to save but it would take a bolder approach than what we're seeing so far," he said.
Hart says single payer is that bolder approach. Often the mere mention of that model elicits groans from people who see it as leading to the rationing of health care. But fellow marcher Dr. Chris Reif says the definition of single payer is not necessarily what people assume.
"Single payer doesn't mean it always happens the same way," Reif said. "It just means that you try to get the economies of scale and try to get better care. Right now there's a move, like in Utah, to have single application forms for insurance. That's one step toward single payer. There's also a move to have our electronic medical records be the same or talk to each other. That's a move toward single payer."
If those arguments don't win over skeptics, single-payer advocates believe the eroding health insurance market will.
Eric Angell is with the Universal Health Care Action Network, another single payer organization that also marched at the King Day rally. Angel points to a recent vote by thousands of Twin Cities janitors who agreed to walk off the job if they don't get a more affordable health-care package.
"This is not an anomaly," according to Angell. "A lot of other unions have decided to go on strike for the exact same reason: the rising health care costs. Employers are not able to provide health care to their employees the way they once did and the obvious reason is the rising health care costs."
Angell says he's skeptical about lawmakers' willingness to look seriously at a single-payer system. But Dr. Jim Hart says he's impressed by at least one bill at the Capitol this session that would extend health care coverage to all children in Minnesota. Hart says the bill uses a single-payer approach to making health care affordable for kids.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who also participated in the march, says if lawmakers passing the "cover all kids" bill, it would be a huge step. But he says he's already detecting some backtracking among people who originally supported the idea.
"It's certainly a tough fight," Marty said. "We're not used to thinking this way. Much of the rest of the world does think that way but in the U.S. the health care industry is set up in a way that doesn't cover people and I think there's been a lack of vision in the political system." Rep. Keith Ellison campaigned on a single-payer system before getting elected to Congress. He says he still believes in the approach and will push the idea in Washington. But he says Minnesota lawmakers need to do their part too.
"Everybody should do what they can do. We're not putting the brakes on any effort," Ellison said. "If we can get a single-payer program in the state of Minnesota, great. If we can do it at the federal level, great. Ultimately it has to be a nationwide thing. But maybe a step toward that goal is a statewide program."
Ultimately single-payer advocates would like to see the state take over the way health care is financed. They admit there are plenty of obstacles to that goal. But they believe Minnesotans are more receptive to the idea now than they've ever been.