Will the health care bosses get their way?

June 30, 2009

The Democrats are letting the health care industry dictate the terms of "reform."

WARNING: THE federal government is poised to commit robbery. And the poor, defenseless victim is...the health insurance industry.

Say what?

That's what top executives of the health care industry and the politicians who represent them want you to believe about the Obama administration's health care reform proposal--because the White House is promoting (with a lot of qualifications) the so-called "public option": a government-run program that the uninsured could choose in order to get coverage.

"We don't believe that it is possible to create a government plan that could operate on a level playing field," moaned Karen Ignagni, president of the insurance industry's lobbying group, and Scott Serota, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, in a letter to senators. "Regardless of how it is initially structured, a government plan would use its built-in advantages to take over the health insurance market."

Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele agreed. "When President Obama says public option, he means government-run health care," Steele said in a statement. "Without question, the government takeover of health care will diminish individual freedom and quality in our health care system. Republicans want real health care reform not another government takeover that Americans simply cannot afford."

Patients in an overcrowded waiting room

These health care industry giants claimed to be so worried about the impeding "takeover" that they offered to change their rules a little bit--for instance, offering to rethink their highly profitable policy of charging sick people higher premiums than well people.

But the offer came with a catch. In return, they want a guarantee that every American will have to buy health insurance--to make up for the profits they might lose by insuring people who actually need health care.

The discussion exposes the boundless greed of the insurance industry--that they openly discuss overcharging sick people without the slightest embarrassment.

"[T]hey confuse their customers and dump the sick, all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors," former Cigna senior executive Wendell Potter said in testimony before a Senate committee June 24. "They look carefully to see if a sick policyholder may have omitted a minor illness, a pre-existing condition, when applying for coverage, and then they use that as justification to cancel the policy, even if the enrollee has never missed a premium payment."

Yet these are the people that the Obama administration is bargaining with over health care reform. As the debate rages in Congress, more and more Democrats are publicly insisting that they won't allow any federal health plan to take away the industry's advantages.

THE TRUTH is that these companies bought their seat at the table--with millions of dollars in political contributions. According to a recent report released by Common Cause, insurers, drug producers and other parts of the health industry have made over $372 million in campaign contributions to lawmakers since 2000. And nearly half of that--$178 million--has gone to members of House and Senate committees that oversee health programs.

If there was ever a truly bipartisan effort in Washington, this is an example. According to a report by the Center for Responsive Politics, "Starting in the 2008 election cycle, the health sector has given more money to Democrats--who had seized control of Congress in 2006--than to Republicans...This was the first time since the 1992 election cycle, right before the Clinton administration's failed health care reform attempt, that the health sector made Democrats its financial darlings."

In return, the health care industry is getting to dictate the terms of health care "reform."

In the name of finding so-called middle ground, Obama and the Democrats are focusing on compromises that the health care industry can be happy with. As a result, they are arriving at a policy that is far less ambitious then what people expected from Obama when he was running for office--and nothing at all like what people actually need.

Even without the compromises, the so-called "public option" would leave intact the insurance industry's predatory role in the employer-based system, which covers a majority of Americans.

The alternative that could solve the health care crisis is a single-payer system, where the government covers everyone under an expanded Medicare-like system--and the insurance companies are cut out. But Obama and the Democrats insist that single-payer is "off the table."

Yet the administration is sending signals that it won't even stand up for its half-measures.

"We've not gotten as far as we've gotten by drawing bright lines in the sand," Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod said on Meet the Press, when asked about whether the administration will insist on a public option.

"The bill will be bipartisan by definition," Axelrod said. "The Senate health committee accepted 82 Republican amendments. Republican ideas will be included with this process; we hope it will come with Republican votes as well."

The administration is characterizing all this as necessary so that some form of reform legislation will pass. But, at some point, you have to ask: Should we want a "reform" that won't change anything to pass?

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote: "It would be a crushing blow to progressive hopes if Mr. Obama doesn't succeed in getting some form of universal care through Congress. But even so, reform isn't worth having if you can only get it on terms so compromised that it's doomed to fail."

The Democrats shouldn't be allowed to pretend that they are compromising with conservatives to get the best health plan possible for working people--not when the health care industry hasn't been asked to compromise on its multibillion-dollar profits.

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