12/18/2007 04:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mandatory Health Insurance Is Not Progress But Political Payoff

Yesterday I watched Arnold Schwarzenegger, the CEO of Safeway, high-rolling California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (under fire for living large on his campaign contributors' credit card) and the man who split the union movement in two, SEIU's Andy Stern, celebrate in Sacramento what it means to be progressive in America.

Apparently it's about forcing everyone to buy health insurance at any price the insurers want to charge with whatever little benefits the companies want to provide. Then you can claim you are requiring insurers to sell to everyone. Hmmm. We have to buy. But insurers must sell. Progressive values?

Mandatory purchases of private health insurance was the centerpiece of legislation that made it out of Nunez's half of the legislature and led the glowing Los Angeles Times story today. It still would have to go to the state senate and the ballot to pay for taxpayer subsidies for the poor and to require employers to pay up for coverage too. A family of two making $54,000 would have to find a way to pay for a health insurance policy averaging $12,000 per year currently. If the ballot measure passed, employers would only have to pay about half of what they currently cover in benefits (6.5 percent of payroll vs. today's average of 13 percent employers contribute) causing individuals to pay more or face state fines.

This sop to the insurance industry is masquerading as progressive reform in the presidential debate as much as Sacramento. Never mind about the hard work of controlling costs and reigning in the spending by insurers, drug companies, doctors, hospitals, and host of health care middlemen. Just make the public buy insurance, regardless of its costs or benefits,and it will all be okay.

The goal of universal health care had been to stop waste and profiteering, then redistribute the savings to the public in the form of guaranteed health care. But these new "post-partisan" plans have been stripped of all effective cost containment. They simply force businesses, individuals and taxpayers to pick up the tab. Apparently, if you can't beat the medical-insurance complex, join it.

Mandatory health insurance is not progress. It's not moving forward for economic equity, social justice, or even material gain in the form of affordable, dependable insurance coverage. None of these proposals regulate or cap premiums. Insurers will not charges less simply because more people are required to buy. And increasingly insurers are canceling coverage based on the fine print in policies. That abuse is not what Sacramento or Democratic presidential candidates propose tackling. Sacramento politicians even refused to say how much in benefits insurers would have to sell.

There is a larger question at work for progressives. Does progress mean getting something done, anything done, to justify your existence? Or does it mean doing the right thing? Or at least not the wrong thing.

The answer in California for politicians, who face strict term limits, is they needed cash from the medical insurance complex to extend their stay in office. That's the story that didn't make the front page of the Los Angeles Times today.

Labor unions, hospitals and doctors, health insurers and the drug industry have contributed $3.8 million to California Proposition 93, the measure to extend legislative term limits on the February ballot, as they sought and received special benefits in Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez's health care legislation, AB 1x. Groups with a stake in the health care debate gave 56 percent of the $5.9 million contributed to Prop 93 to date. SEIU is the top donor, with $1.1 million in. And in the final bill the union received wage increases for its home health care workers and $25 million per year for their "workforce development."

The Speaker has turned the legislature's most pressing work into an ATM for the Prop 93 effort. That's the only reason the legislature could take a vote to force a family of two making $54,000 per year to pay whatever health insurers want to charge. The potential is for even bigger contributions to keep politicians in office longer. Watch how Kaiser, Health Net, Blue Shield, PacifiCare and other insurers in support of the Nunez bill now ante up for Prop 93. Progress or pay off? History will judge.