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Allison Kilkenny Headshot

If Private Industry Loves Obama's Health Care Plan, Americans Will Hate It

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At first, progressives mistook it for a sign of surrender. Harry and Louise were back, but this time, they were speaking out in support of the president's plans for health care reform. In the 90s, the pleasant middle-aged couple were paraded onto national television as part of a larger plan to derail President Clinton's health care overhaul. They returned this year in a $4 million TV campaign supporting reform, sponsored by Families USA and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

But this was actually a bad sign. The reason the pharmaceutical industry and private health care are throwing their weight behind Obama's plan is because -- quite simply -- the plan is great for business. The Harry and Louise II succor is the exact same breed of encouragement offered by Big Pharma in the form of $150 million on television commercials supporting Obama's health care overhaul that will begin over the August Congressional recess. Of course, this is in addition to the millions of dollars in advertising campaigns through front groups like Healthy Economies Now and Families USA, and the $1 million on similar advertisements under its own name.

Big Pharma is willing to spill this kind of cash because they know Obama's reform will pay out big time for them in the end, primarily because Obama has backpeddled on his promise to allow the government to negotiate Medicare drug prices.

During their appearances on Bill Moyer's Journal, Trudy Lieberman, director of the health and medical reporting program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and Marcia Angell, senior lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School and former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, discussed why these kinds of industry-sponsored ads, specifically Harry and Louise II, should act as red flags to the American people. Below is an excerpt from the show's transcript (emphasis mine).

BILL MOYERS: Wouldn't that make you think that Big Pharma is supporting health care reform?

TRUDY LIEBERMAN: That's exactly--

MARCIA ANGELL: Yes, yes.

TRUDY LIEBERMAN: That's what they're supposed to be--

BILL MOYERS: But on their terms, right?

MARCIA ANGELL: On their terms. Exactly. Exactly.

TRUDY LIEBERMAN: This is what those ads are supposed to do. They're supposed to make the ordinary person believe that they're good guys this time around.

BILL MOYERS: And on their terms means what for them?

MARCIA ANGELL: Well, they can charge whatever they want. That there will be no bargaining. That--

TRUDY LIEBERMAN: Medicare.

MARCIA ANGELL: That Medicare Part D will not bargain for lower prices. There'll be no formularies. You know, even this thing about the pharmaceutical industry is going to kick in $80 billion over ten--

BILL MOYERS: Have we heard--

MARCIA ANGELL: --years. That the President mentioned in the press conference.

TRUDY LIEBERMAN: Only if health care passes. So.

MARCIA ANGELL: First this is $8 billion a year for the pharmaceutical industry. This is chump change. And second, it's only for brand-name drugs. So, in a sense, it's a subsidy for the most expensive drugs.

BILL MOYERS: Do you believe the health care industry when it tells President Obama that "we will voluntarily cut costs"?

MARCIA ANGELL: No. I mean, these are investor owned businesses. If they behave like charities, heads would roll in the executive suites. They are there to maximize profits. And that's exactly what they do.

TRUDY LIEBERMAN: What's happened now is that the industries have gotten pretty much what they want out of the bills that are going forward. And so, they need to build public support. They need to make everybody in the public realize that they actually are wearing white hats in this one. But behind the scenes, they are lobbying ferociously against the public plan, against cuts in doctors fees, against all kinds of things that they don't want. And for that they're using a different sort of lobbying tactic. All of these are communications or lobbying strategies that they know how to do and they are very excellent at doing them.

MARCIA ANGELL: It's clear that they can turn it to their advantage.

TRUDY LIEBERMAN: Right.

MARCIA ANGELL: That nobody is really trying to break their-- except the single payer people -- their death grip on the system. And here you have hundreds of for profit insurance companies that maximize their income by denying care to the people who need it most. And that's the insurance system. That's how we pay for health care. But you also have to look at how we deliver health care. And we deliver that, primarily or largely, in for-profit facilities -- businesses, hospitals -- whose interest is in delivering only profitable care. So, we have a system that's through and through, in both the payment system and the delivery system, is oriented toward profits. Neither the Senate nor the House is doing anything to change that.

I was recently contacted by a reader who tried to convince me that this kind of compromise between Big Pharma, Big Health, and President Obama was a good thing. "I just want everyone to be happy," the reader declared. It's a sweet thought, but unrealistic. The American people, Big Pharma, and Big Health can't all win. If Big Pharma is happy, chances are the American people will pay the price, and the same rule applies if the private health care industry is tickled pink by Obama's plans for reform.

President Obama was elected by the American people because he portrayed himself as a reformer. Back in 2008, he used fiery rhetoric chastising the "stranglehold" of the big drug companies. If that same Obama fought for universal health care and regulated the insane and inhumane price-gouging practices of Big Pharma, the American people would win.

Unfortunately, in Obama's new health care reform plans, the American people will lose.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.

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