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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2012, 11:13 am

Is Single-Payer Dead? Meet the Congressional Candidate Who Doesn’t Buy It

By Theo Anderson

David Gill is either way behind the times or way ahead of them. It’s too soon to tell which is true.  

Gill is an emergency-room doctor who’s now making his fourth bid for Congress as a Democrat, this time in the newly-drawn 13th Congressional District in Illinois. His first three races, which he lost, were in the 15th district. Healthcare reform is his main campaign issue.

Specifically, he’s a strong advocate for a single-payer system, under which the federal government would pay doctors and hospitals directly for every citizen’s healthcare, and no one would be excluded from the system. Barack Obama gave qualified support to the single-payer idea in his 2008 presidential campaign, saying that it would be his preference if we were creating a healthcare system from nothing. But Obama said that it wasn’t a realistic possibility, given the circumstances. The idea was never seriously considered during the debates about healthcare reform.

Gill believes that moving to a single-payer system is actually a very realistic possibility—no matter how the Supreme Court rules in its imminent decision on “Obamacare,” which is expected to be announced this Thursday.

“I don’t think we’re finished with healthcare reform, by any means,” Gill told In These Times. “I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I could have an impact. Eventually the economics of this thing are obvious enough that I think you’ll see bipartisan support for the kind of reform that I’m talking about. It’s a no-brainer. It’s just a matter of overcoming the myths that are out there from the drug companies and the insurance companies.”

Gill’s passion for reform comes from working as a doctor in an emergency room, where he sees people suffer and die, often needlessly, day in and day out. “I can’t help but be persistent,” he explained, “seeing people come to the ER who would be doing so much better in another system. There are people who can’t come up with $8 for insulin, so they end up in a diabetic coma. Then we end up paying $60,000 for a week’s stay in the hospital. That sticks in my craw. That’s not who we are as a people. We’re a kind, smart people. But we have leadership that’s not kind or smart, because it too often sells itself out.”

Gill is also motivated by the encounters he had with the healthcare system after his first wife, Polly, developed colon cancer in her early forties. She died in 2007. When she first showed symptoms of the disease and needed a colonoscopy, the Gills ended up paying for it out of their own pocket, since their insurance plan had a high deductible. They would have been turned away if they hadn’t been able to afford the test.

Gill believes that the single-payer idea will attract some measure of bipartisan support once people understand the savings and the health benefits that it would generate, since about 40 percent of the money Americans spend on “healthcare” actually goes to non-medical expenses, such as administrative costs.

Whether Gill can make a difference in Washington depends, first, on whether he’s elected—and the race will likely be close. The new 13th Congressional District leans slightly Democratic, a far different situation than Gill’s previous three races in the 15th District, which was strongly Republican. Though Gill holds the advantage in party affiliation, his Republican opponent, Rodney Davis, will have a significant fundraising advantage. The National Republican Congressional Committee has placed Davis in its “Young Guns” program, which means he’ll receive special attention from the GOP leadership, and his campaign will be a priority for Republican donors and PACs.

Gill’s campaign, meantime, is refusing donations from corporate PACs—another way he’s either behind the times or ahead of them. Though “hope and change” may now seem like just a tired slogan from 2008, Gill believes that positive change is still possible, and that there is real reason for hope.  

“Things go in cycles,” he noted. “When you reach a low point in terms of the pain you heap on people, they wake up. Nowhere is there income disparity like we have. That’s not the way to go. The more pain there is, the more apparent it becomes that there’s a better way.  There have always been difficult situations. The only way to make life better is to forge ahead and make things happen. I just sense that positive change is achievable, and it’s not time to throw in the towel. “

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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