DC's Got It Wrong with Nelson (and Other Red States)

In the current debate over healthcare reform an awful lot of attention has been paid to Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson. And, it's certainly understandable.

Senator Nelson has proven to be a critical swing vote in a divided Senate, and, as we documented earlier this week with our "24/7 Project," Nebraskans have a whole lot at stake in this debate.

Take Jim, a farmer already spending half of his income on health insurance and yet he is seeing more and more farming communities broken up because of uncontrollable insurance costs.

Or take Kathy, a single mom who had to fight her insurance company to cover a treatment that allowed her daughter to walk.

These are the personal stories with real-life consequences that seem to get lost in political posturing fights. It's as if some politicians and groups in DC forgot who the real obstacles are and where the focus should be in order to get what we all want -- healthcare reform this year.

Recently, others in DC started attacking Senator Nelson for his stance on a public healthcare option. But, as reported in the Huffington Post, and Sunday's Lincoln Journal Star, he is keeping his mind open to supporting such a plan. Senator Nelson didn't arrive at this through arm-twisting or name-calling.

Senator Nelson has consistently shown a willingness to listen to his constituents and vote for what is best for all Nebraskans, while his colleague, Republican Senator Johanns, has not. Yet, all we hear are the crickets chirping when it comes to the same folks in Washington who have attacked Senator Nelson, instead of Senator Johanns' lack of ideas around healthcare reform.

Nobody is asking Senator Johanns, who is against a public plan option, how he will protect the 380,000 Nebraskans already on public plans. Nobody is asking Senator Johanns why he was against continuing and expanding SCHIP, unemployment benefits and COBRA. When groups ignore these questions, Senator Johanns' "political brand" goes untarnished, when in fact it -- as with many other Republicans in red states -- it deserves a good and thorough focus.

So, again, why aren't more groups holding Senator Johanns accountable for his record? If they would bother to look, the votes really speak for themselves.

Senator Nelson voted to continue and expand SCHIP, a program he actually created as Governor, so that our kids in Nebraska whose families can't afford health insurance can be covered.

Senator Johanns voted against SCHIP, which would have left thousands of Nebraskan kids uncovered and unprotected.

Senator Nelson voted to extend unemployment benefits and COBRA, the health insurance safety net for those who lose their job and lose their health insurance.

Senator Johanns voted against unemployment benefits and COBRA, leaving Nebraskans with not only lost hope but also then filled with fear of what happens if they get sick in between jobs.

Senator Nelson voted to fund health clinics, which serve as the backbone of our communities.

Senator Johanns voted against our health clinics, which would have left a huge hole in coverage for communities across our state.

I am under no illusions that the health insurance companies don't need reform. My grandmom used her hard-earned savings to keep me alive when insurance companies decided that treating an eating disorder was unimportant and, therefore, not covered in our plan benefits. So, this isn't about protecting insurance companies and it's not about protecting Senator Nelson.

This is about using effective techniques to engage our Senators in a way that gets us to our goal. Groups have been working for years on healthcare in Nebraska. Over the last several months, a focused coalition has worked tenaciously but constructively to make the case for reform and a public health insurance option. Groups like SEIU, Center for Rural Affairs and others have been holding community forums, sending thousands of hand-written letters, writing white papers and launching other creative projects like the "24/7 Project," to illustrate the need for reform.

Senator Nelson is doing the right thing -- he is meeting with grassroots leaders, meeting with medical professionals and meeting with insurance companies to figure out what he will support in the, yet to be released, healthcare reform package.

If DC groups stop villainizing Nelson and focus on the real obstacles of reform, you will not only move healthcare forward, you will also build up the Democrats for long-term change in our state. Then maybe, just maybe, we won't have to run issue campaigns over and over again because we can get people elected who look out for working families in all of our states (even the red ones).

We should hold our wrath on Nelson until the plan comes out and he makes up his mind -- in the mean time, if you want to target a Senator in Nebraska, might I suggest Senator Johanns who is already proving to be a Republican placeholder rather than a leader who stands up and fights for Nebraska's working families.