Dingell, in father’s steps, backs health care to end

Over the past 27 sessions of Congress, there has been a Dingell universal health care bill pending, a proposal first introduced in the middle of World War II.

The bill, to create a single-payer universal-coverage health system, stood little chance of passage over the decades, making its biennial introduction more of a tribute by Rep. John D. Dingell to his father, who introduced similar legislation when he was in Congress, representing the same Michigan district his son now represents.

This year, however, the longest-serving member in the history of the House of Representatives says the introduction of his health care bill is going to be more than symbolic.

At President Obama’s urging, the House has begun hearings on its massive health care reform bill, a proposal that would change the course of American health care. Democratic colleagues have officially named the bill after Mr. Dingell to honor his work.

“When Dad introduced the bill, it was a matter of humanitarian concern,” the Michigan Democrat told The Washington Times in an interview. “Today, it’s still a humanitarian concern, but American industry is going broke because they can’t afford” health coverage.

Mr. Dingell credits his interest in health care to his father, John D. Dingell Sr., who represented Michigan’s 15th district for 22 years until his death in 1955.

The senior Mr. Dingell survived tuberculosis — a rarity in the early 20th century — despite not having health coverage, and made it his life’s work to expand health coverage to all Americans. He first introduced a bill to establish a single-payer health care program, with universal coverage, in 1943.

When he died in 1955, his 29-year-old son took over his seat, fixed up his father’s bill and introduced it himself in 1957. He has continued to introduce the bill in every Congress since.

The sense of history was not lost on Rep. Charles B. Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, when the draft bill was introduced earlier this month.

“To be working in the shadows of John Dingell’s dad and recognizing the historic work that he’s done over the years in the health reform system just reminds me of how many politicians, members of Congress and presidents have said that they’re going to do something about reforming our health system,” said Mr. Rangel, New York Democrat.

Still, the bill the House is working on now isn’t exactly what the Dingells have proposed, which typically carries the bill number of the Dingell district — 15 or 16. Both offer universal coverage, but the older bill would have created a single-payer health care system, which today is a politically volatile proposition most observers think Congress is not ready to accept.

But even the modified bill “is going to make progress,” Mr. Dingell insisted. “It’s going to solve the problems that we confront.”

The draft bill includes sweeping changes to the American health care system, including the creation of a public health insurance option to compete with private insurers. It also would require employers to provide coverage and individuals to obtain it. The proposal, the details of which are still being hammered out in committee hearings, does not include critical details on how it would be financed.

The proposal faces opposition from Republicans and the insurance industry.

Mr. Dingell, who built a legendary power base on the Hill while wielding the gavel at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has witnessed a number of attempts to reform health care, notably the 1993 work by former President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. That year, the bill failed by one vote in Mr. Dingell’s committee.

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