As House Democrats and President Obama slogged forward to a healthcare reform compromise today, western Mass. activists got together to celebrate the granddaddy of single-payer healthcare—Medicare—and to press U.S. Rep. Richie Neal to sign on to an effort to extend the program to all Americans, not just the elderly.

The Western Mass. Single Payer Network and Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette were scheduled today to host a 44th birthday party—complete with cake—for Medicare at the city’s library. The party also served as a rally in support of a House bill called the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act.

“An expanded and improved Medicare for All could build on our current Medicare system with universal coverage, increased payments to doctors through negotiations, bulk purchase of prescription medications which would be free to patients, the inclusion of long term care, incentives for physicians to go into primary care, and other much-needed provisions,” organizers of the event wrote in an email to supporters. “Improved and expanded Medicare would provide a system for tracking epidemics and areas needing more health care facilities and providers. Free choice of providers and hospitals would be built in along with continuous coverage regardless of employment and marital state.

“Medicare could be the single payer of all U.S. health care costs.”

Western Mass.’ other congressman, John Olver, has already signed on as a sponsor, along with six other members of the Massachusetts delegation. Neal, however, has not.

“For several years, Rep. Neal, a great defender of Medicare, has refused to co-sponsor [the bill], despite appeals by constituents including doctors and nurses, the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council, and Massachusetts Senior Action Council, as well as two City Councils in his district, Northampton and Springfield,” the Western Mass. Single Payer Network said. “On Medicare’s birthday it is time to acknowledge the power and success of America’s single payer plan. It is time to put single payer health care on the table as the only real solution for providing affordable, quality health care to everyone at every age. Expanded and improved Medicare for all is the home-grown solution, the only effective solution to the health care crisis in the U.S.”

In addition to the local rally, activists in D.C. planned to lobby members of Congress, including Neal. They’re asking Neal to request a Congressional Budget Office report on the bill, as well as sign on as a co-sponsor. (Advocate reporter Stephanie Kraft wrote about the campaign earlier this summer here.)

On the eve of the rally, Neal’s office sent the Advocate a statement in response to the activists: “Thank you for the invitation to celebrate the 44th Anniversary of the Medicare program. There is no program in the history of America that has been more successful than the Medicare program. Medicare has added years to life and life to years for countless seniors in the country. And you should know, in the United States Congress there is no more ardent and vocal supporter of the Medicare program than me.

“I am in Washington DC today working on the health care plan that we are developing to cover the 47 million uninsured in this country. Like President Barack Obama, I subscribe to the notion that we can do better in America. We are building on what currently works in our system, and as President Obama says, the tenet of this plan before us is that ‘if you like what you currently have, you can keep it.’

“That being said, my goals are the same as yours—doing better and achieving universal coverage. I support a public option in this reform effort. I have worked in the Ways and Means Committee on a bill that includes a public option, insurance reforms, cost-containment, preventive care expansion—and the bill we voted out was entirely paid for. I support an individual mandate for health insurance and believe that employers who are currently contributing to their employee’s health care should continue to do so in a new system.

“I admire your commitment to the single payer cause and universal coverage. It is simply not the approach being taken up by the President, or the House or the Senate. That being said, if it were easy to reform our health care system, we would have done so already. Changing the system we have is difficult – there are countless regional and competing concerns in a time of limited resources. I caution—we shouldn’t be at all discouraged if we don’t meet artificial deadlines. We should continue to fight for universal health care for all Americans.”