THE BLOG

Hillary Learned the Wrong Lesson from 1994 Health Care Fiasco

09/18/2007 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The pundits might have it right on this one. Hillary Clinton did learn a lesson from her 1994 fiasco on healthcare reform. Unfortunately for most of us who don't have an Inc. after our name or a private jet to cart us around, it was the wrong lesson.

In the days leading up to the announcement of her latest, much anticipated health plan, Sen. Clinton threw around the word "consensus" a lot. In this case, the consensus she was seeking was with the same industry that so savaged her prior experience with healthcare.

This time, she apparently wants to soften them up in advance with a proposal that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional profits for the insurance giants. It's probably not a coincidence that she is also the top recipient of healthcare sector contributions to her presidential campaign.

Looking past the bells and whistles -- which do at least include some good sound bites on retiree health and giving regular Americans the same health plan options as members of Congress -- the Clinton plan seems to rest on three shaky legs:

1. Forcing all Americans, who do not have current coverage and do not qualify for public assistance, to buy and maintain insurance;

2. Mandating large employers to either provide health benefits or contribute to the cost of coverage

3. Tax credits for just about everyone

If the central elements here sound familiar, they should. The plan is a smorgasbord of the worst elements of what we've seen and heard from some other presidential candidates and the plans floating around several state Capitols.

Ironically, given the overheated reaction from Republican candidates, Clinton's plan most closely resembles the approach of two Republicans -- the Mitt Romney-crafted law in Massachusetts and the proposal by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That's hardly a badge of honor. The Massachusetts model is working best for those with public subsidies, and Schwarzenegger's plan is now buried in the minutia of a special legislative session while public support for it has been plummeting in the polls.

The biggest failing of this plan, like the Romney and Schwarzenegger schemes before it and like most of the other Democratic candidates' proposals, is the abject failure to challenge healthcare industry price gouging and runaway costs.

Insurance premiums have climbed 87 percent the past decade, and though they have slowed a bit in the past year, the increase is still double the average increase in wages. That does not include, of course, the rising cost of deductibles, co-pays, prescription drug prices, hospital charges, and, the latest fad, annual doctor fees, like what many people are charged for the privilege of having a credit card or checking account.

This is only the biggest healthcare story of the year. One recent example. Consumer Reports last month reported that more than half of the "underinsured" postponed needed medical care due to cost and a third had to dig deep into their savings to pay for medical expenses. Another third of those over 50 said decisions about their retirement were adversely affected by healthcare costs, one quarter had outstanding medical debt, 38% postponed home or car maintenance repairs due to medical bills, and only 37% said they were prepared to financially handle unexpected major medical costs in the next year.

Throwing more Americans under the wheels of the insurance industry will not solve this problem any more than criminalizing the uninsured is humane or sound health policy.

Clinton's solution is a combination of tax credits, unspecified encouragement to drug companies to "offer fair prices," and promoting "consumer price consciousness in choosing health plans."

But tax credits mostly benefit higher income Americans. And families grappling with skyrocketing prices, and no controls on costs, will likely choose the cheapest, high deductible plans that provide the worst coverage. The sad outcome may be seen in a report earlier this year by the American Academy of Pediatrics that families with high deductible health plans are far more likely to put off needed care, including immunizations and recommended treatment, due to the cost.

Sen. Clinton might have drawn an entirely different idea from her prior unpleasant history with the healthcare industry. She might have decided to cut them out of the business of profiting off pain, suffering and medical debt, and proposed a very different solution, such as expanding Medicare, Medicaid, or the State Children's Health Program to cover everyone.

Accommodating the insurance behemoths, and effectively offering them massive public subsidies -- using the considerable power of government to force everyone to become paying customers of the private insurers -- is not the kind of leadership on healthcare we need.

Rose Ann DeMoro is executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee and a national vice president of the AFL-CIO