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Michele Swenson Headshot

Dems & Repubs on Health Care: 'Love a Lobbyist'

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Unleashing an era of unfettered corporate greed, in 1995 Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay herded lobbyist contributions to Republicans, in exchange for corporate-authored legislation to overcome much regulatory law. "Project Relief" was their brand for relieving corporations of regulatory oversight. "People who are pro-free enterprise should support people who are pro-free enterprise," reasoned Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, who opined "If you want to play in our revolution, you have to live by our rules." Gingrich warned recalcitrant lobbyists, "For anyone who's not on board now, it's going to be the two coldest years in Washington."

More than a decade of extreme kleptocracy later, an insulated Washington leadership remains in the corporate stranglehold. The health care reform debate continues to be framed by the same insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies that wrote the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act to grant themselves billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies and inflated profits. Key participants in Washington health care reform talks are private insurers that are at the center of an unsustainable insurance bureaucracy that insures their profits by decreasing coverage and increasing premiums - more than 100% since 2000.

Also at the table is Billy Tauzin, who, as a Republican congressman from Louisiana and chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, played a key role in the passage of an industry-friendly Medicare prescription drug bill. His payoff was to trade his seat in Congress for the lucrative role of leadership of PhRMA, the lobbying arm of the pharmaceutical industry.

Democrat's point-man for health care reform, Finance Committee Chair, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) was also key in brokering 2003 Medicare reform. Named "K Street's Favorite Democrat", perhaps it was a Freudian slip when Sen. Baucus explained, "Merck is not ready for single pay. I mean, America." The Center for Responsive Politics, reports that between 2003-2008 Sen. Baucus was the recipient of $588,185 from the insurance industry and $523,313 from the pharmaceutical/health product industry - in fact, the leading Democratic recipient of corporate largesse.

"Lobbyists just want what's best for America," asserted Baucus at a bash with lobbyists. "Lobbyists are people, too," opined Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) - "They are "someone's father, mother, son or daughter." They just happen to be people proffering large sums of money to lawmakers in return for the favor of writing public policy.

The joke is on taxpayers. Insurers actually welcome government intervention when it suits their purpose, e.g., when taxpayers subsidize them and pay for high-risk patients in public programs, leaving private insurers to corner the market on the healthy.

Baucus and many Democrats stubbornly prefer the unsustainable Massachusetts model of health reform. America is simply not ready for a single-payer health care model, echoes House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry A. Waxman. Promising a universal health care package by year's end, he advocates building on the current failed system - "adjusting it, improving it to fill the gaps," and maintaining "a significant role for private insurance."

Our legislators fail to acknowledge that meaningful health care reform - a single public-payer, private provider model of health care would not only save billions of dollars and provide health care for all. As the second largest budget item - 17% of GDP and fast approaching 20%, it would move the U.S. a long way toward economic recovery.

Most Republicans have already rejected even a parallel public-payer option for health care. Promoters of "free-market competition" among insurances, including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), protest the unfairness of private insurers forced to compete against the option of a government insurance plan like Medicare that maintains lower overhead costs - 3 percent - vs. 15-20 percent for private insurances.

Following the president's March 5 health care summit, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo) made the appeal to "keep what works," stating that private health insurance competition for profit is the key to innovation. Gov. Bobby Jindal's rebuff of President Obama's congressional address rejected "government bureaucracy that comes between people and their doctors." Nevermind the huge isurance bureaucracy that games the system for profit by denying, delaying and reneging on claims, and devastates the patient-doctor relationship.

Blunt compared "government health care" to the "DMV or the IRS," with long waits and copious paperwork. But, even as our legislators capitulate to the insurance lobby, many providers are buried under mountains of paperwork, ever-changing drug formularies, preauthorization requests and claims appeals for thousands of different insurance plans. Many overwhelmed practitioners are simply leaving medicine, decimating our primary care system.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tn) waxed hyperbolic as he described the president's health care proposal a "fast march toward socialism," verging on "class warfare." Defining health care "a privilege, not a right," Wamp blames the uninsured for "going naked" - without health insurance. "They end up in the emergency room costing you and me a whole lot more money," he barked into a TV camera.

Viewing health care as a zero sum game and disregarding the fact that those with insurance are mostly underinsured, Wamp laments that benefits will be taken from those with health insurance to provide health care for those without. Rather than eliminating insurance profiteering, Wamp protests cutting excessive taxpayer subsidies of 13-19% to privatized Medicare, mischaracterizing it as "cutting Medicare benefits."

Call it 'socialism' if you like, Congressman - you are the beneficiary of taxpayers, who pay at least 70 percent of your health coverage (another large subsidy to private insurances), not to mention your generous salary. There is a distinction between 'socialism' and 'social insurance' - insurance as intended is the largest risk pool to protect everyone from financial ruin. Much of the wasteful administrative cost of U.S. health care financing results from efforts by insurers to avoid paying for health care.

Our leaders better hurry to get out in front of the people - polls have consistently demonstrated significant support for comprehensive health care reform. In May 2005, a Pew Poll revealed that 65 percent agreed government should guarantee health coverage for every American "even if it means raising taxes." A recent 2009 Survey by Lake Research Partners (2/2-8/09) found that nearly 7 in 10 voters express a desire for complete overhaul or major reform of the health care system. In April 2008 the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that 59 percent of U.S. doctors, too, supported "government legislation to establish national health insurance," an increase of 10 percent of doctors over 5 years.

Legislators, take a cue from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who advised that to begin to achieve universal health care you have to ask the right question -- not how to provide everybody with insurance, but rather, how to provide everyone with health care.