by Jim Cullen, editor, The Progressive Populist, to be printed in the September 2009 issue
For sheer, unmitigated gall, it’s hard to beat the conservatives who are mounting a last-ditch campaign to derail meaningful health care reform.
First, the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies bribed Congress members with millions of dollars in campaign contributions to keep expansion of Medicare — the most efficient way to provide affordable health coverage to every American — “off the table.”
Then their allies in Congress held up the progress of a compromise health reform bill past the summer recess. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) continues to negotiate with Republican senators who have indicated that they will never support a final bill that liberal Democrats could support.
At the same time, rightwing organizers are coordinating mobs that have disrupted attempts by Democratic Congress members to discuss health care reform in their home districts. Protesters have showed up at congressional town meetings armed with Republican talking points that the President Obama’s plan would threaten Medicare and veterans’ health programs, put government bureaucrats between patients and their doctors and set up “death panels” to deny care for seniors and the disabled.
In fact, as Mike Madden notes in “Dispatches,” the “death panels” already are operated by private health insurance companies, who wield insurance-policy fine print to deny expensive treatments for stricken customers who thought they were covered. The bureaucrats earn bonuses and their bosses fatten their corporate profits at the expense of unlucky patients.
Wendell Potter was head of corporate communications for CIGNA, one of the largest for-profit health insurance companies, when he helped spearhead the healthcare industry’s campaign against Michael Moore’s movie, Sicko in 2007. But he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! July 16 that he decided “it was time to go” after CIGNA later that year denied a California teenager, Nataline Sarkisyan, coverage for a liver transplant that her doctors had recommended. That forced Nataline’s family to appeal to the media, the California Nurses Association and others to put pressure on the company, which ultimately decided to cover the procedure, but it was too late for Nataline, who died just two hours after CIGNA told her family the transplant could go ahead.
Potter quit CIGNA and became a whistleblower with the Center for Media and Democracy (prwatch.org). He said Wall Street has forced insurance companies to dump more sick customers in order to increase profit margins since 1993, when Bill and Hillary Clinton were trying to reform health care. At that time, insurers spent 95 cents of every premium dollar to pay claims. Now, with the consolidation of the insurance industry into seven very large for-profit companies that dominate the market, the companies have gotten those payouts down to 80% of premiums paid. The savings go to the corporate bottom line.
In comparison, only 3% of Medicare expenses go to administration and there is no incentive to arbitrarily deny care. But that’s socialism!
Health insurance companies, health care providers and pharmaceutical companies are pouring $1.4 million a day into lobbying, to water down the reforms, delay their implementation or, better yet from their point of view, kill it off entirely.
“Of course, the thing they fear most is that the country will at some point gravitate toward a single-payer plan,” Potter said. “That’s the ultimate fear that they have. ... They fear even the public insurance option that’s being proposed, that was part of President Obama’s campaign platform, his healthcare platform. And they’ll pull out all the stops they can to defeat that.
The insurance industry’s game plan to defeat the current reform effort is based on scare tactics, he said. “They’ll be working with their ideological allies, with the business community, with conservative pundits and editorial writers, to try to scare people into thinking that embracing a public health insurance option would lead us down the ... slippery slope toward socialism and that you will be, in essence, putting a government bureaucrat between you and your doctor. ... They’ve used those talking points for years, and ... they’ve always worked.”
This year conservatives have mobilized cadres of “teabaggers,” the right-wing shock troops who first came on the scene in April to protest taxes and vilify President Obama. Organized by Washington-based lobbyists such as Dick Armey’s “FreedomWorks” and local Republican and Libertarian officials, the teabaggers showed up at town hall rallies to crowd out health reform supporters and shout down attempts by Congress members to explain their positions on health care as well as attempts by health reform advocates to make their cases.
Obama made a populist appeal for healthcare reform in Portsmouth, N.H. on Aug. 11, telling the bipartisan crowd about the pitfalls of private insurance and making it clear that people who think they have good insurance coverage should welcome reforms too: “I don’t think government bureaucrats should be meddling [in your health care], but I also don’t think insurance company bureaucrats should be meddling,” he said, adding, “Right now insurance companies are rationing care.”
He added that he is not promoting a single-payer plan, because it would be too disruptive. “I am promoting a plan that will assure that every single person is able to get health insurance at an affordable price, and that if they have health insurance they are getting a good deal from the insurance companies.”
Teabaggers (many of whom are covered by Medicare but are frightened by the scare tactics) protest that Obama is moving too fast, but we’ve been waiting for universal health care for more than 60 years, since Harry Truman proposed national health insurance after World War II. This past year’s election not only put Obama in the White House with a mandate for change but also put commanding Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Independent polls consistently show that a clear majority of the public wants reform with at least a strong public option. (A New York Times/CBS poll (July 29) found Americans trust Obama over Republicans on health care by a 55%-26% margin and 66% support a Medicare-style public option for all Americans.)
It’s time to move on healthcare reform. Senate Democrats need to remind Max Baucus that his is merely one committee that is working on health reform. There are several points on which Democrats and Republicans can agree, such as defining a minimum package of benefits; prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage or charging higher premiums because of a person’s medical history or health condition; and setting up health insurance exchanges, where people could shop for insurance and compare prices and benefits. The Senate health committee, chaired by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) in the absence of ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), has approved a bill that, in addition to these points, would set up a “public option,” administered by the government, to compete with private health insurance companies.
Republicans say they won’t allow a government-run public insurance plan to compete with private insurers. Fine. But Baucus and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the finance committee, need to produce the best bill they can come up with, so Democratic leaders can merge it with the health committee draft, and send the resulting bill with a strong public option to the full Senate for an up-or-down vote.
If any Democrat supports a Republican filibuster, Majority Leader Harry Reid should make it clear they can forget about any Senate leadership role in the next session.
Progressive Democrats are in a lot stronger position in the House, where three committees already have produced bills that will be consolidated into one measure when the House comes back in September. Then a House-Senate conference committee will meet to reconcile the differences in the bills and send the compromise back to both respective chambers for final passage.
Democrats must pass strong health care reform this fall by any means necessary. They must not submit to the corporate terrorists.