August 18, 2009
Photo: Joëlle Pénochet 2008
Never much of a fighter against abusive corporate power, Barack Obama is making it increasingly clear that right from his start as President, he wanted health insurance reform that received the approval of the giant drug and health insurance industries.
Earlier this year he started inviting top bosses of these companies for intimate confabs in the White House. Business Week magazine, which proclaimed recently that “The Health Insurers Have Already Won” reported that the CEO of UnitedHealth, Stephen J. Hemsley, met with the President half a dozen times.
These are the vendors. They and their campaign slush funds cannot be ignored in the power struggle over the legislation percolating in the Congress. One public result of these meetings was that the drug industry promised $80 billion in savings over ten years and the health insurance moguls promised $150 billion over the same decade. Mr. Obama trumpeted these declarations without indicating how these savings would be guaranteed, how the drug companies could navigate the antitrust laws and what was given to the health care industry by the White House in return.
We have now learned that one Obama promise was to continue the prohibition on Uncle Sam from bargaining for volume discounts on drugs that you the taxpayer have been paying for in the drug benefit program enacted in 2003.
Unknown is whether the health insurance companies were also promised continuation of Medicare Advantage with its 14 per cent added taxpayer subsidy to induce the elderly to make the move out of public Medicare. We nlw know that the Medicare public option that Mr. Obama formerly espoused but since has wavered on is almost certainly doomed.
The whole secret process is seedy and demonstrates cruel disregard for the millions of American who, whether in dire need of medical services or not, voted in “change we can believe in.”
By stark contrast, President Obama has never invited to the White House the leading consumer-patient champions in this country who favor full Medicare and free choice of physician and hospital—often called “a single payer” system. Open to the corporate barons who have failed decade after decade to deliver what patients need, the White House door is closed to the likes of Dr. Quentin Young—a founder of the Physicians for a National Health Program and an old Chicago friend of Obama’s, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, who heads Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, Drs. Marcia Angell, Stephanie Woolhandler, and David Himmelstein, who are nationally known and accomplished single payer advocates or Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the fast-growing California Nurses Association.
Mr. Obama even tried to exclude any advocate of a single payer system—previously favored by Obama and still favored by a majority of the American people, doctors and nurses—from his roundtable meetings convened to receive the views of different constituencies.
“Make me do it” was the advice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reformers when faced with legislation he desired but did not have the votes for in Congress. Mr. Obama is not exerting that plea for people power. Were he to do that, he would be encouraging daily public hearings in the Senate and the House on the bureaucratic waste, greed, overbilling, collusion, and fraud that many in the corporate world have inflicted with their costly, pay or die health care industry.
Such publicized hearings would keep him on the offensive. It would arouse the public and focus energies on the main problem—the corporatization of medicine. This commercialism has left tens of millions of people without health insurance, caused 20,000 fatalities a year, and cost Americans twice or more per capita than have full Medicare systems in western countries, which have better health outcomes than the U.S.
Further indication of Obama’s corporate dealings is that he never identified himself with a specific bill with a House and Senate number that he could rally the people around. No wonder people are confused, frustrated and angry. President Obama did not stand for an unambiguous proposal.
He thereby emboldened both the cash-and -carry Blue dog Democrats to rebel and the Republican yahoos to launch their lies and distortions via Rush Limbaugh and similar trash media.
Obama is about to make his biggest mistake to date by favoring the bipartisan deal his assistants are working out with Blue Dog Senator Max Baucus and his Republican counterparts on the Senate Finance Committee. This proposal has no public option, no consumer protections or restraints on the mayhem and skyrocketing charges of the so-called health care industry.
Already the less corporate-indentured bills being reported from the House Committee by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and his allies are getting short-shrift from a White House that clearly views the forthcoming Baucus-Grassley “compromise” as the “more practical” go-to legislation.
There is reliable word that the AFL-CIO will endorse whatever Obama approves, with the exceptions of the California Nurses Association and the Sheet Metal Workers’ union. The latter, through their president, Michael J. Sullivan, announced in late July that it was suspending all future campaign contributions to any candidate for Congress or the Presidency.
Already over sixty progressive members of the House, headed by Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) have declared opposition to these unacceptable compromises moving forward in both the House and the Senate.
So is gridlock around the corner? Will there be a health insurance reform of any stripe signed into law this year? It depends on the alliances that settle for the lowest corporate denominators being blocked by the unyielding principled stands of the progressives who want something that puts patients above the failed profiteering vendors.
The guess here is that Obama will sign anything which squirms through a cowardly Congress that cannot give to the American people in 2009 the health care system Congress stopped President Harry Truman from establishing in 1950.
It is up to the people of our country to “make him do it” whether this year or next. A mere one million immediate calls to members of Congress by one million assertive citizens will start sobering up these legislators who think they can get away with another sale of our public trust.
The Congressional switchboard is 202-224-3121. The full Medicare, single payer bill (backed by nearly ninety legislators) is H.R. 676. The go-to citizen group for your sustained engagement is singlepayeraction.org. The rest is up to you, the majority, who want to put the people first.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate and three-time presidential candidate.