WASHINGTON — It’s wedding cake season, but at one Minnesota bakery, the boss has left the building to attend to other business.
Lynn Schurman struggles to provide health care for her 65 employees at Cold Spring Bakery and she wants Congress to know about it. So even with 23 tiered cakes on order for weekend nuptials, Lynn Schurman recently hung up her apron to join 500 faith-based activists to push health care reform on Capitol Hill.
Their goal? Pressing Congress to provide a so-called “public option,” essentially a government-run insurance plan, in the upcoming legislation.
“As a member of a faith community, I believe it’s part of my obligation to provide health care to my employees,” said Schurman, a Catholic who lives in Cold Spring, Minn., population 3,000.
Little else has stirred the health care controversy more than the Obama administration’s support for a public option, which would put a government insurance plan on the market to compete with private insurers.
For those wanting “single-payer” insurance — which would put the government in charge of nearly all health insurance plans — the plan does not go far enough. Private insurers fear just the opposite: that their days are numbered once a government plan wreaks havoc on the competition, leaving a slippery slope towards socialized medicine.
Schurman, a member of St. Boniface Catholic Church, said health care reform reflects the Christian ethic of helping those described in the Bible as “the least of these.” It also “goes right to the heart of Catholic social teaching,” she said.
The lobbying push was organized by the Gamaliel Foundation, a Chicago faith-based social justice group that once trained a young street organizer named Barack Obama.
Volunteers from 19 states that are home to Gamaliel affiliates kicked off their day of prayer and protest at a Lutheran church in the shadow of Capitol Hill. The Rev. James Forbes, minister emeritus of New York City’s Riverside Church, gave the send-off sermon.
“Anyone who cares about God must believe every child of God must have access to quality health care,” he preached.
Many in the pews at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation represented the 45 million of the U.S. uninsured. A pin, clipped to one woman’s hat, read: “Don’t cough on me. I don’t have health care.”
The volunteers split into regional groups, and the dozen in Schurman’s cohort spanned the breadth of the health care debate: a Lutheran minister, a physician, a young mom, a recent college graduate and Schurman, a small business owner.
Her Cold Spring Bakery sits outside St. Cloud — a region that inspired Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon — and has been family-run since 1946. But in the last decade, Schurman has seen her health insurance rates skyrocket. Though she pays 80 percent of her employees’ premiums, many are still scraping by on crumbs at the end of the month.
Last year, her top baker (and highest-paid employee) dropped his insurance because he could not afford the premiums and the experimental medication his wife takes for chronic illness.
Only 38 percent of small businesses can afford to provide health care coverage to employees. That’s nearly half of what it was in 1995, according to a 2008 survey by the National Small Business Association.
“I think I represent a different side of the issue,” said Schurman. “Most people expect someone like me, who owns a business, to side with the Chamber of Commerce, but I don’t.”
In fact, the same day Schurman lobbied lawmakers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told Congress the public option is not an option. They launched a $100 million campaign in June, in part to fight the proposal.
“I think that these faith-based groups have a pattern of being out of touch and lobbying for things they don’t understand,” said James Gelfand, senior manager of health policy for the business lobbying group.
He said people have been deceived by rhetoric of choice and competition.
Schurman’s group first stopped at the offices of Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., a fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat, whose office is filled with taxidermy and Minnesota memorabilia.
Peterson supports universal health care, but has reservations about the public option, Robin Goracke, his legislative director, told Schurman’s delegation.
Chief among the congressman’s concerns is one that has split the medical profession: the fact that many health care providers cannot afford to offer current nationalized programs like Medicare and Medicaid. A Senate draft of the health care bill would not impose Medicare-style payment structures that many doctors find onerous.
Goracke also told the group that the phones are ringing off the hook from opponents of public-option, and to send a different message, she said proponents need to “be doing the same thing, annoying the hell out of Congress.”
Schurman felt frustrated by similar but noncommittal responses from the offices of Minnesota’s Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat.
She does not know if she made a difference, but she has no regrets.
“Traveling out there and meeting people, I got to see a lot of other situations I wasn’t even aware of,” she said by phone, back home at the bakery. “It just made it more imperative to actually resolve this.”