In a gathering in Medford Monday, longtime health care reform activists Estelle Womack and Herb Long talk about the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Sunday, a success that both have worked on for decades. - Mail Tribune / Jim Craven

Health plan marks long-awaited victory

Monday was a morning of hoots, grins and backslapping as local activists — many of whom had been working on the idea of health care reform for decades — celebrated its reality.

"I feel like I could fly," said Estelle Womack of the League of Women Voters and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (This organization name has been corrected) "I've been working on this for so long and have been so hopeful and it's been dashed down so many times and suddenly it's here!"

The historic and controversial health care plan passed the House Sunday night on a 219-212 party-line vote.

"It's a great day and an amazing victory," said Rich Rohde, Medford organizer for Oregon Action, who led a panel of speakers at Grilla Bites in Medford. "I've been involved with this campaign since 1987. People all over Jackson County are going to benefit from this."

It was not a total victory. Democrats, who passed the bill with no Republican votes, got about a fourth of the pie that many activists had sought a year ago, said Herb Long of the Rogue Valley Citizens Alliance.

However, noted Womack, "we got the crust."

"Now we can build the pie," added Long, predicting a process that eventually will lead to a full public option — "but it will take five or 10 years."

Acknowledging that many House Democrats put their political futures on the line to vote for the bill, Allen Hallmark, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, predicted that by the November elections, voters would embrace its benefits.

"Republicans think the bill is going to be devastating to Democrats and sweep Republicans into office," said Hallmark. "That couldn't be further from the truth. Americans are going to turn around. They're really scared right now because of (right-wing commentators), but people are going to like what they see by November."

Immediate or near-term benefits of the new law, said Rohde, will include:

  • People no longer being cut from insurance coverage because they're sick;
  • Rebates to seniors hit by the Medicare Part D "donut hole" for prescription drugs;
  • Adult children being allowed to stay on their on parents' insurance policies until age 27;
  • No pre-existing condition denials by insurers and no annual or lifetime limits by insurers;
  • Tax credits of up to 35 percent for small business when they provide insurance.

"Health care is now the right of all citizens," said Rohde, "and we're going to work till all this is phased in."

Nancie Koerber of the Oregon Small Business Council praised the tax credit, saying it "will help a lot of businesses keep their doors open."

None of the benefits came without a fight. The bill was "absolutely" the nastiest legislative battle in memory, said Steve Neuberger, Oregon organizer of Health Care for America NOW, who said he had worked on the issue for three decades.

"I'm really exhausted but so delighted it's been accomplished after all these years," Neuberger said.

Michelle Glass, who said she was a health care activist, mom and college student, praised the inclusion of adult children under 27, adding, "I'm so excited about what this means to us as a nation and what it does for children, our most vulnerable population. It will also take care of the economy. It's a huge victory for us as Americans."

Caren Caldwell, a local minister, said, "Only a few weeks ago, pundits and politicians were saying health care is dead, but these people (activists) said that's not possible. You could see by the set of their jaw it was going to pass."

Long and Womack deplored the name-calling, the use of "socialism" as a negative epithet — while Americans embrace Social Security and Medicare — and the anger and hatred stirred up during the 14-month debate.

"Socialism is when a nation picks up its social responsibilities and moves toward the common good," said Long, who began activist work marching for desegregation in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

The hurling of racial epithets at black members of Congress as they walked in to vote on the health care bill, he added, was "appalling." "Deep down," said Womack, "I know some people harbor prejudice, but I thought we'd progressed. It was disappointing. The anger, it started with talk radio. It's so filled with hatred. All they're doing is making a lot of money, getting rich on anger and hatred."

President Barack Obama was scheduled to sign the bill — expected to cost $938 billion over 10 years and extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans — today in a ceremony on the White House lawn.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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