In a recent post, we brought together an overall assessment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA), showing how it cannot be expected to remedy our health care system’s four major problems—lack of universal access, unrelenting surge in costs, decreasing affordability for much of the population, and variable, often mediocre quality of care. That was followed by other posts that took cancer as a bellwether for how patients with serious illness are likely to fare under the new law, again with disappointing results.

Even though the new law is just entering its implementation phase, we already know how and why it will fail to meet urgent needs for reform. More fundamental reform that more directly attacks the forces responsible for system problems will be required, sooner rather than later. But to be more successful the next time around, we need to learn the lessons as to how and why this last reform effort went off the tracks if we are to avoid making the same mistakes once again. That is the subject of this post.

Here are some of more important ways in which the politics of reform diverted the process from the real goals of reform, ending up instead with a nearly $1 trillion bill that serves corporate interests in the medical-industrial complex and Wall Street much better than Main Street and ordinary Americans.

1. Framing of the issues and the entire political process were hijacked by the very interests that are largely responsible for the system’s problems of access, cost and
quality. The opening assumption was that we had to build on the existing system, thereby serving the interests of insurers, drug and medical device makers, hospitals, organized medicine and other parts of the system that would resist structural change. Missing from the subsequent health debate were more basic issues, such as whether health care is a right or a privilege based on ability to pay for just another commodity on the open market, and whether the business model underlying our system is consistent with the long-term public interest. Instead, the language of the debate was dominated on the right by defense of markets as the solution and that government is the enemy, and on the left by such meaningless slogans as “competition” and “guaranteed affordable choice”. The debate then devolved to such arcane details as public options, exchanges and triggers, which much of the public found difficult to track and understand.

2. The democratic process was commandeered by corporate money. Corporate interests, intent on expanding their markets through the “reform” bill, pushed their agenda through lobbying, campaign contributions to key legislators, advertising campaigns through disease advocacy groups and Astroturf organizations, and feeding talking points the media (which thrived on the 24-7 coverage of the battle over a year and a half). These examples illustrate this coordinated effort by industry: Industry representatives were often in critical places as illustrated by these examples: (1) (MSNBC. Obama health czar directed firms in trouble) (2) (Center for Public Integrity, as cited in Moyers, B, Winship, M. The unbearable lightness of reform. Truthout, March 27, 2010)
• Elizabeth Fowler, insurance industry representative turned staffer of the Senate Finance Committee, largely wrote that bill.
• Nancy-Ann DeParle, White House Director of the Office of Health Reform, had received $6 million previously while serving on boards of directors of at least half a dozen companies that were targets of federal investigations, whistleblower lawsuits and other regulatory actions.
• By the time the reform law was finally passed, about 1,750 businesses and organizations had hired some 4,525 lobbyists, eight for every member of Congress, at a cost of $1.2 billion.

3. Market failure was not recognized as the wellspring of our system problems. Market advocates were successful in perpetuating the myth that competition in health care markets can rein in uncontrolled costs, even when experience and many studies confirm the opposite. These examples make the point:
• Continuous escalation of prices and costs by drug and medical device manufacturers, hospitals, physicians and other members of the medical-industrial complex.
• A nine-year study by the Community Tracking Study of 12 major U. S. health care markets found these four barriers to efficiency and quality of care: (1) providers’ market power; (2) absence of efficient provider systems; (3) employers’ inability to push the system toward efficiency and quality; and (4) insufficient health care competition, (3) (Nichols, L et al. Are market forces strong enough to deliver efficient health care systems? Confidence is waning. Health Aff (Millwood) 23 (2): 8-21, 2004))
• Consolidation among providers limits choice and competition in many markets. (4) (Kronick, R, Goodman, DC, Weinberg, J, Wagner, E. The marketplace in health care reform. The demographic limitations of managed competition. N Engl J Med 328: 148, 1993)
• A 2006 AMA study found near-monopolies by private insurers in 95 percent of HMO/PPO metropolitan markets. (5) (Associated Press. Study: Health insurers are near monopolies. April 18, 2006)

4. The private insurance industry, already dependent on various kinds of government subsidies, does not offer enough value to retain its 1,300 insurers.
These are the main reasons that the present multi-payer system should be replaced by a not-for-profit single-payer financing system: (6) (Geyman, JP. Do Not Resuscitate: Why the Health Insurance Industry is Dying, and How We Must Replace It. Common Courage Press, 2009)
• continued inflation of health care costs, which insurers cannot control.
• growing unaffordability of premiums and health care.
• decreasing coverage of policies with often unaffordable out-of-pocket costs.
• growing economic insecurity and hardship, even for the insured.
• shrinking private insurance markets and cutbacks in public markets.
• adverse selection in shrinking risk pools.
• increasing profits despite declining enrollments (e.g. Aetna profits up by 42 percent in second-quarter 2010). (7) (Veiga, A. Aetna posts higher 2Q profit up 42 percent. Associated Press, July 28, 2010)
• Stockpiling large surpluses even while hiking premiums. (8) (Young, A. Consumer group: Insurers kept surplus while hiking premiums USA Today, July 22, 2010)

5. The Obama Administration has so far been unwilling to confront the special interests and address the real problems. After winning the 2008 election, with the Democrats taking both the House and Senate as well as the White House, the pragmatic and overly cautious incoming president did a 180-degree turn from this statement made five years previously to the Illinois AFL-CIO:
I happen to be a proponent of a single payer universal health care program… (applause)…I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its Gross National Product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody….But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, and we have to take back the House. (9) (Obama. Speech to the Illinois AFL-CIO, June 30, 2003)
As a result of the deals the president made with corporate interests through their voluntary, unenforceable pledges, he joined forces with them in gaining political support for “reform”. But this “alliance” with corporate interests assured that the legislative outcome would meet corporate interests more than those of ordinary Americans. And it leaves the president with little clout to rein in these interests, since he now depends on the PPACA to work. It would be a PR and political disaster if more insurers leave the market, more physicians refuse to see newly “insured” patients, and growing numbers of patients and families see affordable care and choice as disappearing. The state of Maine has already asked the federal government to waive its medical loss ratio (MLR) requirement, fearing disruption of the individual and small business market. (10) (Pear, R. Covering new ground in health system shift. New York Times, August 3, 2010: A13)

6. Policy makers and politicians ignored the lessons of history in attempting incremental “reforms” that had already failed over the last 30 years. Improved access and containment of health care costs have been addressed by many initiatives over the last 30 years, including managed care, employer and individual mandates, tax credits, association health plans, chronic disease management, pay for performance, and expansion of health information technology. Although all have failed to redress these two system problems, they were included in one way or another in the PPACA as more fundamental financing reform, such as shifting to a not-for-profit financing system, was intentionally kept off the table for political reasons.

In sum, the medical-industrial complex won this last battle over health care reform. Robert Kuttner, co-founder of The American Prospect 20 years ago, reminds us of the political challenge ahead: President Obama took office at a moment when free-market ideology, Wall Street hegemony, and conservative incumbency were thoroughly disgraced by recent events. But Obama has not yet been able to translate that failure into a durable progressive counterrevolution. (11) (Kuttner, R. A 20-year odyssey. The American Prospect 21 (7): 3, 2010)

Adapted in part from Hijacked! The Road to Single Payer in the Aftermath of Stolen Health Care Reform, 2010, with permission of the publisher Common Courage Press.