THE BLOG
08/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama and Congress: If You Missed Wise County, Join Me in LA

The insurance industry, its business allies and its shills in Congress are doing their best once again to scare us away from real health care reform, just as they did 15 years ago. Using the same tactics and language they did then, insurers and their cronies are warning us that America will be sliding down a slippery slope toward socialism if the federal government creates a public insurance option to compete with the cartel of huge for-profit companies that now dominate the health insurance industry.

One of the false images they try to create in our minds is of long waits for needed care if our reformed health care system resembles in any way the systems of other developed countries in the world--systems that don't deny a single citizen access to affordable care, much less 50 million of them.

Here is a real image, and a very scary one, that I wish those overpaid insurance executives and members of Congress could have witnessed before dawn yesterday: a thousand men, women and children standing for hours, in the dark, in a line that seemed to be endless, waiting patiently for a chance -- a chance because the need is so great many are turned away -- to get much-needed care from a volunteer doctor.

That is the scene they would have witnessed if they had bothered to come to the Wise County, Virginia, fairgrounds for the 10th annual Remote Area Medical (RAM)Expedition, a thee-day event in the southern Appalachians that grows larger every year as more and more Americans join the ranks of the uninsured and the underinsured.

Among those standing in line were people who thought they had decent health insurance until they really needed it. They found out the hard way that the policies insurers are forcing most of us into these days require us to put much more "skin in the game," as insurers say, so we will be more prudent "consumers" of health care.

When I came to the Wise expedition as a curious insurance company public relations executive two years ago, I was so shaken by what I saw that I knew immediately I was doing PR for the wrong side of the health care reform debate. A few months after that I walked away from job that paid me very well to be one of the industry's mouthpieces.

When I returned to Wise yesterday, this time as someone trying to pull the curtain back on despicable insurance industry practices such as "purging" people from insurance rolls when they become sick, I was even angrier, even more outraged at what passes for a health care system than I was in 2007.

Knowing the industry as I do, it takes extraordinary callowness and heartlessness to surprise me. I didn't think I was capable of being shocked by insurers' greed.

I was wrong. What I learned yesterday is that many people who stand in those long lines at RAM events (the Wise expedition is the organization's 575th), are people who have been told by their insurance companies that they should call RAM if they don't have enough money to get needed care because they can't afford to pay their out-of-pocket expenses.

That's right, insurance company bureaucrats, who are under constant pressure from Wall Street analysts and investors to spend less and less of every premium dollar they receive from us to pay medical claims, are telling their policyholders to seek charity care. They are telling them to go stand in long lines, in the dark, at events held once a year, to get the care they thought their insurance companies would pay for just so they can put more of their premium dollars in the pockets of their executives and shareholders.

When I heard that I asked how much money RAM, a nonprofit organization that depends entirely on donations, has received this year -- or any year for that matter--from the insurance industry. I knew the answer but wanted to ask it anyway. If you guessed nothing, you guessed right.

Back in the early '90s, when the insurance industry was spending millions of dollars, as it is now, to scare us away from any additional involvement of the federal government in our health care system, one of the executives I wrote speeches for quoted 18th century economist Adam Smith's famous line about the ruthless "invisible hand" of the market in calling for less, rather than more, government regulation of the industry.

He was right: the invisible hand has indeed been ruthless. Fifteen years after he gave that speech, far more Americans are uninsured and underinsured. Millions of people have lost their homes or filed for bankruptcy because they couldn't afford to pay their medical bills. Thousands of our family members and neighbors have died needlessly because they didn't go to the doctor or pick up their prescriptions because they didn't have adequate insurance.

On behalf of the millions of men, women and children who will suffer the same fate unless Congress passes real reform this year, I am issuing this invitation to President Obama and members of Congress: join me at the next RAM event, which will be held over eight days next month in Los Angeles (August 11-18).

Congress, if you must take your August vacation, spend a day or two of it -- or a few minutes of it, if that's all you can spare--helping to register the many thousands of your fellow Americans who will be standing in long lines, in the dark, waiting for the doors of the Forum to open. Chances are you visited the Forum in years past to see the Lakers play. Be prepared this time to see it fulfilling an entirely different function, and be prepared to look those folks in the eye and explain why you needed to go on vacation before passing health care reform. And explain to them why many of you are saying we just can't afford reform, so let's just call the whole thing off and let the private market continue to work its ruthless magic.

Remember, Congress: while you are on vacation, 150,000 Americans will lose their insurance, many of them will file for bankruptcy because of mounting medical bills, and at least 1,500 will die because they don't have coverage that gives them access to care they need.

I'm looking forward to seeing you in LA.