Double take on single-payer

Discussion bifurcates with surprise GOP participant

Assemblyman James Gallagher, center left, introduces himself as “the elephant in the room” at the health care forum including his challenger, Sonia Aery, left, and congressional candidate Audrey Denney, far right. Moderator Mike Wiltermood sits center stage.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, center left, introduces himself as “the elephant in the room” at the health care forum including his challenger, Sonia Aery, left, and congressional candidate Audrey Denney, far right. Moderator Mike Wiltermood sits center stage.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

See for yourself:
BCAC TV, which broadcasted the forum, has posted a video online (visit

When James Gallagher walked into the Chico Guild Hall last Wednesday evening (Oct. 10), moments before the scheduled start of a candidate forum on health care, heads turned.

The North State assemblyman didn’t draw notice for his manner of arrival. Rather, the fact he’d come at all is what proved a surprise to event organizers and attendees.

This forum—sponsored by a collection of progressive groups, moderated by Enloe Medical Center CEO Mike Wiltermood—focused on big-picture questions surrounding health care, directed at candidates for U.S. Congress and the California Legislature. Democrats accepted the invitation to appear; Republicans either declined or didn’t respond.

So Gallagher, a GOP incumbent, approached a dais with seats set for his challenger, Sonia Aery of Chico; Caleen Sisk, running for Assembly in the Redding area against Brian Dahle (in a district that also covers part of the Ridge); Phillip Kim, vying to unseat state Sen. Jim Nielsen; and Audrey Denney, the Chicoan battling Rep. Doug LaMalfa.

During his introductory comments, Gallagher addressed “the elephant in the room” by quipping, “I’m the elephant in the room.” His views mostly contrasted with those of the Democrats, who all favor some version of single-payer insurance—universal coverage, “Medicare for All”—and he drew a few boos with talking points against these health programs overseas.

Gallagher, and Wiltermood afterward, joined the chorus in identifying fundamental problems with the current system and an urgent need to address them.

“I think it’s an important discussion to have,” Gallagher told the CN&R. “I disagree that single-payer is the way to go to bring about better outcomes and lower costs, but the goals that we’re trying to reach are similar: How do we provide more access [and] how do we ensure that health care is truly affordable?

“I think everybody in this room agreed that, ‘Hey, the current system is a disaster.’ It really is. My argument is it’s been made more of a disaster by government interference over time.”

Aery and Denney both stressed single-payer health care is neither a government takeover nor socialized medicine. Single-payer encompasses “who pays for health care,” Denney said, “not who delivers health care.” The same providers—hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices—would operate under a single-payer system; what it would eliminate would be private insurance companies.

Removing that stratum of administrative cost and corporate profit would yield savings for businesses, employees and individuals who pay escalating prices for health coverage.

“As a business owner in a rural area, I can say, ‘Yeah, it’s way too expensive,’” said Aery, who runs an insurance agency. “I’m not my employees’ mother. It took me 2 1/2 years in business to be able to contribute to their health care cost….

“We’re [both] paying and still not everything is covered.”

That the forum became a referendum on single-payer stemmed from planners as well as participants. Though the lead sponsor, Butte County Health Care Education Coalition, is nonpartisan, co-sponsors Physicians for a National Health Program and California Health Professional Student Alliance are single-payer advocates. (Chico Housing Action Team and Chico Peace and Justice Center also co-sponsored.)

The groups’ leftward leanings may have telegraphed a tone, but Gallagher told the CN&R that a schedule conflict was the reason he had not planned to attend. When he found he’d become available, he came. The hosts prepared a handwritten placard for him and made space between Aery and Wiltermood.

The event starting with a screening of the 2015 documentary Fix It: Health Care at the Tipping Point, which makes a case for single-payer. Gallagher felt that may have “pigeon-holed us” in exploring that option, as opposed to looking at the issue without a preconception.

Overall, following the event, he said, “I’m glad I was here. I enjoyed it; I enjoy a healthy discussion and debate.”

During the discussion, Gallagher proposed a “social safety net”—government-funded coverage for people who cannot afford it, with protections for people with pre-exising conditions—“then a free market for everyone else.” He posed the question, Why should the public pay for a billionaire? (Gallagher named Tesla CEO Elon Musk.)

Aery stressed a key component of single-payer: taking health insurance out of the workplace. Denney—noting “we need to be thoughtful, we need to be careful, when we structure one-fifth of our [national] economy”—expanded on that idea; she extolled job mobility, free from concerns of employer health plans, as a way to “unleash human capital.”

After his 70-minute Q&A, Wiltermood told the CN&R that he was pleased with the outcome. “The issues of health care are pretty complex,” he said, “and I have to give the candidates a lot of credit. It seemed like a frank and pretty open dialogue.

“The takeaway that we’re in crisis is important for the public to understand,” he added. “It’s also important for the public to understand that it is a complex issue, there’s a diversity of opinions here, and it’s going to take a country that’s willing to set aside partisan differences in order for us to come together and create a system that actually works the way our country deserves it to work.”