Atop the front page of the New York Times today is a color photo of Georgia homes flooded up to their rafters, an image that illustrates how when it comes to insurance our Congress applies two standards, separate and unequal, one for property and a lesser one for people.
Unlike people without health insurance, homeowners have access to public option flood insurance.
Even those who fail to take personal responsibility to buy insurance to protect their property can get benefits, thanks in good part to politicians who are leading opponents of public option healthcare.
Consider the example of Trent Lott of Mississippi, who was that state's senior senator when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, flooding his home looking out on the Gulf. Lott had not exercised personal responsibility by taking out flood insurance even though it was available from the federal government at low cost. He did have private insurance, but his insurer refused to pay much of the claim, saying it was not wind damage (which was covered by the policy), but water damage (which was excluded).
Weeks later Lott introduced Senate Bill 1936, which would have authorized retroactive flood insurance. The idea came from Representative Gene Taylor, a Democrat who represented the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which should remind us that when there is voter demand for reform, and campaign contributions are not the driving force, the parties have worked together.
Lott's bill would have let flood victims pay 10 years of flood insurance premiums after-the-fact plus a 5 percent late payment penalty. Since this storm was rated a once in 500 years occurrence, even 10 years of premiums would not come close to covering the real costs, meaning a taxpayer subsidy was built into the Lott bill.
Instead of being laughed at by his fellow Republicans for promoting socialism, the concept of retroactive relief was warmly embraced, although not the idea for retroactive insurance. Instead the government went with handouts.
Senator Thad Cochran, also a Mississippi Republican and at the time chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was key to getting taxpayer benefits for flooded property, according to Taylor's staff. The benefits were issued and expanded twice, a total of about $18 billion in all, Taylor's staff estimated.
Contrast the two Mississippi Republican senators' determined action to get welfare for flooded buildings with their votes against expanding SCHIP health insurance for poor children.
Cochran opposes a public option in health care; Lott, now a lobbyist, says Obama should just declare victory after some minor tweaks, a way to oppose without quite saying so.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican Party, has spoken cautiously, but also appears to oppose a public option. But he, too, was an enthusiastic supporter of retroactive benefits for flooded property. Barbour even got the relief expanded and urged everyone to get their government property benefits.
There is also an interesting twist in this public option for another aspect of the health care debate - what to do about those who decline to buy insurance.
In Mississippi the relief for flooded buildings came with a requirement that owners buy flood insurance. It went further, requiring a covenant be added to their property deeds requiring the current and all future owners of that property to maintain public option flood insurance.
There is another word for that: government mandated insurance.
How about a similar retroactive option for people with a pre-existing condition who do not have health insurance? Many of these people had insurance before the recession cost them their jobs and with it, their health care coverage. Even people who took personal responsibility and had health insurance now may be without healthcare insurance because the recession cost them their jobs or their employers enough revenue to continue coverage.
Why should those who lost their jobs and thus their healthcare insurance be held to a different standard than irresponsible homeowners like former Senator Lott?
I call federal flood insurance a public option because it is provided by the federal government., It is sold, however, through individual insurance agents who collect commissions on the policies.
Private, for-profit insurers could sell this insurance if they wanted. The problem is that rating the risk of a once-in-a-century or even once in-a-millennium event is difficult and requires a huge pool of capital held in reserve to cover benefits that may be due tomorrow or in the year 2805.
Socializing these risks makes sense, and so does trying to minimize them with building codes that discourage building in some areas and require mitigating designs (like putting the first floor 15 feet above sea level). Individual policies for flood insurance, which many people must now rely on for health care coverage, would be like selling insurance for kindergarten in case of pregnancy or prosecution insurance in case you are a crime victim.
Congress is so generous in its subsidies for property that the public option for flood insurance even covers property built in flood prone areas. And you can literally buy insurance on the day of a flood in some cases, and 1 day before in others.
Along the Gulf Coast, on the barrier islands on the Atlantic, in below-water expanses behind river levees and in desert communities plagued by flash floods, our federal government is there using tax dollars to help take care of damaged property.
But people? Providing a public option so people can buy health insurance through the federal government is "socialism," according to Senator John Kyl, the Republican senator from Arizona, a desert state where flash floods are as permanent a feature of reality as sickness and injury. Will someone ask Kyl why he favors what he calls socialist policies for property, but not people?
And what about the denial of coverage you paid for, which so enraged Lott that he filed a lawsuit against his insurer, State Farm? Lott, like others, was told that their policies would cover the modest damage like broken windows and torn roofs caused by the hurricane's winds, but not the surge of storm waters, even though the wind drove those waters into Lott's living room.
Health insurance companies have found more than 1,400 reasons they can retroactively take away health insurance benefits from people, Congressional investigators found after digging through the fine print of insurance contracts. (You, of course, have read and understand every word in your health insurance contract, right?) A woman who had acne was denied breast cancer coverage, for example, though she later got her coverage restored.
And health insurance companies have become masters at digging up excuses to rescind policies, as shown by the recent hearings held by Representative Henry Waxman, who chairs the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
For-profit health insurers literally reward doctors who deny costly care to people, making corporate-run death panels a lucrative enterprise. As recounted in my book FREE LUNCH, Dr. Linda Peeno denied a heart transplant to a man she never met even though she was certain it would cause him to die. She did so in Kentucky, where she had a medical license, by stamping "denied" on a form even though the man was in California, where she was not licensed. Humana, one of the biggest for-profit health insurers, rewarded her and Dr. Peeneo got a conscience that caused her to stop that work and start working to end such abominations.
We have elevated property above human lives. That members of Congress who frequently proclaim their religious faith and cite the Bible as their guide would put property above people suggests they need to actually read the texts they claim guide them. Neither Jesus nor the Old Testament prophets ever put property first. They did however denounce those who did, labeling their deeds with a simple word: evil.
Two standards, separate and unequal, for the health of property and the health of people, are un-American. This bias in favor of property over people should be ended with all deliberate speed by raising the standard for people to that of property. A public option would be one small step in that direction.