HELENA - Physicians, nurses and other advocates of a national, single-payer health system are vocally protesting their exclusion from high-level reform talks at the committee chaired by Sen. Max Baucus - and getting arrested while doing it.
"If you asked me a few weeks ago if I'd be arrested, I never would have dreamed that," said Dr. Margaret Flowers of Sparks, Md. "But it became clear that (Baucus and his colleagues) wouldn't give us a seat at the table, no matter what we did, so we had to have our voice heard somehow."
Flowers was among eight people arrested last week as they protested before the Senate Finance Committee, which is preparing to craft major health reform legislation.
On Tuesday, five more people were arrested at a Finance Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., as they demanded that a single-payer system be considered as a possible reform.
"We're advocating on behalf of our patients, and we're not going to go away," Flowers said in a telephone interview with the Missoulian State Bureau.
Baucus, D-Mont., wouldn't make himself available for an interview this week. However, spokesman Ty Matsdorf said Baucus has had meetings with single-payer advocates, and that they've been involved in other discussions.
"Senator Baucus feels that everyone should be heard on health care reform, and that is why he invited people to submit comments into the congressional record or organize meetings with the senator and his staff," Matsdorf said.
At the same time, Baucus has said single-payer will not be considered as a possible reform of America's health care system.
Under a single-payer system, the government would act as the primary health insurer, providing health coverage for all citizens, paid for by tax revenue.
Flowers, a pediatrician, heads the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program, a doctors' group pushing for a single-payer system.
Since the election of President Barack Obama, the group has been contacting legislators, asking that single-payer be considered alongside other possible health reforms.
"What we've been finding is that the harder our movement pushes, the more they try to exclude us," she said.
Flowers said the group asked Baucus to include its president, Dr. Oliver Fein, at a May 5 roundtable before the Finance Committee, as it discussed reforms to expand affordable coverage.
That request was rejected, she said, while the roundtable had 15 people representing health insurers, business, retirees and others.
As the meeting began, Flowers and others shouted from the audience, asking why the roundtable included no one for a single-payer system.
"The comments from the audience are inappropriate and out of order," Baucus responded. "Any further disturbance will cause the committee to recess so the police can restore order."
Capitol Police arrested each person as they spoke out, and they were taken to a Homeland Security Department building nearby, Flowers said.
Flowers said she was charged with unlawful conduct and disruption of Congress and held for seven hours before being released. An arraignment is scheduled May 26.
Baucus later attempted to address some of the protesters, saying he "deeply, deeply respect(s) the views of all members of the audience and all Americans who feel deeply about health care reform."
"I hear what you say. I talk to a lot of people in my home state of Montana who have the exact same views," Baucus said. "But we aren't going to get the best result here (unless) we can have an orderly discussion as to how we should best reform our health care system."
Flowers dismissed Baucus' statement as "political talk that doesn't mean anything."
"If he really respected our views, he would allow us to be there and present our views equally with others," she said.
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