This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.
Exit poll: Health care mattered
By David Catanese
January 20, 2010
Scott Brown’s opposition to congressional health care legislation was the most important issue that fueled his U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts, according to exit poll data collected following the Tuesday special election.
Fifty-two percent of Bay State voters who were surveyed as the polls closed said they opposed the federal health care reform measure and 42 percent said they cast their ballot to help stop President Obama from passing his chief domestic initiative.
“I’m not surprised it was the top issue, but I was surprised by how overwhelming an issue it was. It became a focal point for the frustration that has been brewing with voters, and it’s a very personal issue that affects everyone,” said Tony Fabrizio of Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican firm that conducted the exit poll of 800 voters.
According to Fabrizio’s findings, 48 percent of Massachusetts voters said that health care was the single issue driving their vote and 39 percent said they voted for Brown specifically because of his vocal opposition to the measure.
Massachusetts has had a law in place for the past four years that requires every resident to purchase health insurance, and reaction among residents to the mandate has been mixed.
But Fabrizio said that program remains controversial with voters who have not seen their medical costs drop significantly. “It is grossly over budget and causing the state severe fiscal problems. In short, Massachusetts voters know the shortcomings of government health care,” he said.
NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey
January 10-14, 2010
12. I’m going to read you two statements about the role of government, and I’d like to know which one comes closer to your point of view.
43% – Statement A: Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.
48% – Statement B: Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.
6% – Some of both
3% – Not sure
30. From what you have heard about Barack Obama’s health care plan, do you think his plan is a good idea or a bad idea? If you do not have an opinion either way, please just say so.
33% – Good idea
46% – Bad idea
18% – Do not have an opinion
3% – Not sure
32. Thinking about efforts to reform the health care system, which would concern you more?
40% – Not doing enough to make the health care system better than it is now by lowering costs and covering the uninsured.
53% – Going too far and making the health care system worse than it is now in terms of quality of care and choice of doctor.
7% – Not sure
Oh no! Not another commentary on the significance of the Massachusetts special election for U.S. Senator.
This one will be brief, and include input from the current NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey.
The election confirmed that there is significant opposition to the health care reform bill before Congress.
When expressed in generalities, people remain divided on the appropriate role of government in solving our problems. That conclusion cannot be extrapolated to specific programs and policies.
Question # 32 (NBC/WSJ) requires individuals to choose between “lowering costs and covering the uninsured” on the one hand and “quality of care and choice of doctor” on the other, when most individuals support all four concepts. The implication is that you can’t have it all, but an improved Medicare program covering everyone would achieve all of these goals.
We must be very careful to not misinterpret the rejection of the highly flawed reform proposal before Congress. It does not mean that comprehensive reform has been rejected.
There is overwhelming support for our Medicare program. If the public understood that all of us could benefit from an improved Medicare program for everyone, the political dynamics could shift. But we have much more work to do to deliver that message.
This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.
California limits HMO wait times
By Duke Helfand
Los Angeles Times
January 19, 2010
Seeking to reduce the long waits many people endure to see a doctor, California regulators are implementing new rules that specify how quickly patients in health maintenance organizations must be seen.
The regulations by the California Department of Managed Health Care, in the works for much of the last decade, will require that patients be treated by HMO doctors within 10 business days of requesting an appointment, and by specialists within 15.
The managed healthcare department acted in response to a 2002 law that mandated more timely access to medical care. The law left it to state officials to work out the details, which became subject to protracted negotiations with HMOs, doctors, hospitals, consumer groups and other healthcare activists.
In all, it took seven years to finally reach agreement amid intensive talks, bureaucratic hurdles and a lengthy rule-writing process, participants said.
HMOs will be given until January 2011 to comply.
Remember the managed care revolution in the latter part of the last century? Remember how angry everyone became over the interventions designed to control spending by preventing patents from having timely access to care?
As a leader in managed care, California, very early on, began the process to enact corrective legislation to reduce some of the abuses. However it took them until 2002 to pass a law as simple as limiting the delays for appointments for medical care, and the law won’t even apply until 2011.
What have they done to correct other abuses such as the refusal to pay after bungled prior authorization requests, or the refusal to even authorize recommended care, or gouging made possible by tiering of benefits, or exposing patients to high out-of-pocket expenses through innovations in insurance product design, especially high deductibles, or, one of the worst, taking away patents’ choice of physicians and hospitals by limiting care within contracted networks of providers?
Our legislators initially jumped on the managed care bandwagon by enacting laws establishing the enabling regulatory framework that the managed care entities required. Those of us who raised alarms about the flawed policies were told that any problems could be fixed later. They never were fixed, and we’re still living with that mess.
And now we’re shouting as loud as we can that the policies contained the current legislation will leave too many uninsured, many more underinsured, and health care costs will keep increasing at intolerable rates. And what are we told now? Let’s pass this and we can fix the problems later.
We already know what the problems are, but they will not be officially acknowledged until many years after the program formally begins a few years from now. Then we will see many more years of fighting over tweaks to the system, but with no substantial reform.
Everyone understands the problems of managed care, and this reform theoretically should be replacing that flawed system with substantial reform. But what is this reform proposal? More managed care! And now with a mandate to purchase these plans or be assessed penalties.
Really. Think of what they would be doing many years from now to fix this system. Pass a federal law to specify the maximum number of days that can elapse before your provider must grant you an appointment? Come on!
This system can’t be fixed. It will have to be replaced with an improved Medicare for everyone. Why delay for maybe decades, prolonging the physical and financial suffering of those who need care now? We need to replace the system now – in 2010!
This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.
A Proper Sense of Priorities
A speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 6, 1968
As we were marching today, some 5,000 strong, I thought about Selma because I could look around and see so many who have marched with us in Selma, and from Selma to Montgomery. And we are still marching and we are still moving. And I give you my commitment today that I plan to continue.
Someone said to me not long ago, it was a member of the press, “Dr. King, since you face so many criticisms and since you are going to hurt the budget of your organization, don’t you feel that you should kind of change and fall in line with the Administration’s policy. Aren’t you hurting the civil rights movement and people who once respected you may lose respect for you because you’re involved in this controversial issue in taking the stand against the war.”
And I had to look with a deep understanding of why he raised the question and with no bitterness in my heart and say to that man, “I’m sorry sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. [Laughter – Applause] I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or by taking….[Applause] Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion.” [Applause] Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus. [Applause]
On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right. [Applause]
Yes… truly a proper sense of priorities… and especially apropos now for us and our friends and colleagues at PNHP.
The speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Proper Sense of Priorities,” was, as the title states, a speech on the proper sense of priorities. As a central theme he expressed his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
For those who believe that it was a stretch to use a quote from an anti-war speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. to advance the cause of health care justice, the following excerpt from the same speech should clarify the intent of my message:
“I’m still convinced that the struggle for peace and the struggle for justice or the struggle for civil rights, we call it in America, can be tied together. These two issues….[Applause] They are tied together in many many ways. And I feel the people who are working for civil rights should be working for peace and I feel that those who are working for peace should be working for civil rights and justice.”
Justice in health care is what Physicians for a National Health Program is all about (and many of us incidentally are pacifists as well).
I apologize to those who perceived my communication to be deficient, though the stand-alone words of Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly require no clarification.
(Note: This event occurred earlier this week, before the tragic earthquake in Haiti.)
The future of healthcare reform came to Sacramento yesterday
January 12, 2010
I joined the California Health Professionals Students Alliance at the Embassy Suites about a mile from the Capitol building.
Students from every medical school in California came in buses the night before. I was impressed by their enthusiastic support of SB 810 and their ability to explain the advantages of Single Payer and this pivotal legislation which will be re-introduced at the Senate floor next month.
We then marched about a mile toward the Capitol building.
Shockwave’s diary and a 3 minute video of the event:
California Health Professional Student Alliance
This week medical students and other health professional students and colleagues marched on Sacramento in support of Sen. Mark Leno’s SB 810, a reintroduction of Sen. Sheila Kuehl’s single payer bill that was passed and vetoed twice in prior legislative sessions.
Reading Shockwave’s diary and watching the brief video can give you renewal. California’s health professional students understand that Congress abandoned so many important policies that they are ending up with legislation that ostensibly achieves a political victory, but one that is reform in name only, while leaving most of our dysfunctional system in place.
These students know what real reform is. They hold our future in their hands. Thanks to them and to all of the rest of the single payer activists, the process will continue until every single one of us can have the health care that we need.
Obama’s Prescription for Low-Wage Workers: High Implicit Taxes, Higher Premiums
by Michael F. Cannon
January 13, 2010
House and Senate Democrats have produced health care legislation whose mandates, subsidies, tax penalties, and health insurance regulations would penalize work and reward Americans who refuse to purchase health insurance. As a result, the legislation could trap many Americans in low-wage jobs and cause even higher health-insurance premiums, government spending, and taxes than are envisioned in the legislation.
Those mandates and subsidies would impose effective marginal tax rates on low-wage workers that would average between 53 and 74 percent — and even reach as high as 82 percent — over broad ranges of earned income. By comparison, the wealthiest Americans would face tax rates no higher than 47.9 percent.
Over smaller ranges of earned income, the legislation would impose effective marginal tax rates that exceed 100 percent. Families of four would see effective marginal tax rates as high as 174 percent under the Senate bill and 159 percent under the House bill. Under the Senate bill, adults starting at $14,560 who earn an additional $560 would see their total income fall by $200 due to higher taxes and reduced subsidies. Under the House bill, families of four starting at $43,670 who earn an additional $1,100 would see their total income fall by $870.
In addition, middle-income workers could save as much as $8,000 per year by dropping coverage and purchasing health insurance only when sick. Indeed, the legislation effectively removes any penalty on such behavior by forcing insurers to sell health insurance to the uninsured at standard premiums when they fall ill. The legislation would thus encourage “adverse selection” — an unstable situation that would drive insurance premiums, government spending, and taxes even higher.
Since the numbers and policy details in the final reform legislation have not yet been released, the results presented here by Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute may be modified, but unchanged will be the conclusion that the complex, jerry-rigged method of paying for health care premiums will not eliminate inequities.
It is almost impossible to get right the amount that each person or family should pay with so many variables moving in different directions: insurance premiums, actuarial values, premium subsidies, cost-sharing subsidies, income levels, family sizes, age rating, bracketed income cliffs of eligibility, and other factors. Financing health care by using a fixed premium for a given private insurance plan no longer works because premiums for adequate plans are no longer affordable for the majority. Trying to make health care affordable by applying corrections for the many variables increases the administrative complexity while falling short on equity.
Financing would be greatly simplified and much more equitable if we established a single risk pool that covered everyone and funded it through progressive taxes. (That likely would not be the conclusion of the libertarians at Cato, but they offered no alternative suggestions in this report, and we wouldn’t agree with them anyway.)
In the wake of Tuesday’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the need for medicines, basic medical supplies, food and shelter is extremely urgent. Financial contributions to the relief effort are also badly needed, as are trained medical staff.
There are numerous ways to help groups already on the ground in Haiti. One of the best, Partners In Health, founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and several others, has been operating in the country since 1987. PIH operates clinics in Port au Prince and other major Haitian cities. With hospitals and a highly trained medical staff in place, Partners In Health is already bringing medical assistance and supplies to areas that have been hardest hit. Donations to PIH to help earthquake relief efforts will be quickly routed to the disaster.
You can donate online to the Partners in Health effort via this link:
or send your contribution to:
Partners In Health,
P.O. Box 845578
Boston, MA 02284-5578
Trained medical staff are also urgently needed.
Nurses who want to volunteer in Haiti are being coordinated by the Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), a project of the 150,000-member National Nurses United (NNU), formed last month through the unification of the California Nurses Association and other nurses unions. RNRN is hoping to have nurse volunteers on the ground in Haiti within the next few days and is coordinating with Haitian nurses on the effort.
Details are still being worked out, but those able to support the efforts of these nurses can get involved via:
* www.NationalNursesUnited.org to sign up to volunteer or donate
* @NationalNurses on twitter or by following: #haitiRN
* Call the RNRN hotline: 1-800-578-8225
The RNRN may also be able to help direct physicians who would like to volunteer in the recovery effort. Groups like Doctors without Borders are among those who are already treating victims.
Health Insurers Funded Chamber Attack Ads
By Peter H. Stone
January 12, 2010
Just as dealings with the Obama administration and congressional Democrats soured last summer, six of the nation’s biggest health insurers began quietly pumping big money into third-party television ads aimed at killing or significantly modifying the major health reform bills moving through Congress.
That money, between $10 million and $20 million, came from Aetna, Cigna, Humana, Kaiser Foundation Health Plans, UnitedHealth Group and Wellpoint, according to two health care lobbyists familiar with the transactions. The companies are all members of the powerful trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans.
The funds were solicited by AHIP and funneled to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to help underwrite tens of millions of dollars of television ads by two business coalitions set up and subsidized by the chamber.
In late October, (AHIP President Karen) Ignagni wrote in a letter to the Washington Post defending a health insurer-funded study critical of congressional cost estimates, “Let me be clear and direct, health plans continue to strongly support reform.” However, by that time money was already flowing through AHIP to the chamber to fund its negative ads.
The fundraising started last September and continued through December using AHIP as a conduit to avoid a repeat of the political flak that hit the insurance industry after it famously ran its multimillion-dollar “Harry and Louise” ads to help kill health care reforms during the Clinton administration.
AHIP’s December 2008 proposal for reform (pages 7-11):
This is not a simple Gotcha! The largest private insurers in the nation have been caught red-handed, secretly passing funds through their lobby organization, AHIP, to the United States Chamber of Commerce to help fund the Chamber’s advertising campaign opposing the reform proposal currently before Congress.
AHIP’s Karen Ignagni repeatedly has professed publicly to “strongly support reform,” yet has now been caught in this dishonest scheme campaigning in opposition to the current proposal. When you read AHIP’s proposal for reform (link above), you will see that it almost could be used as a description of the legislation. That is no surprise since it essentially was written by the private insurance industry. The legislation contains virtually every major policy that they requested.
So why should the insurers be involved in this effort to sabotage the bill? The answer is in two parts: what they don’t like about the current legislation, and what they do like about the status quo.
As the bill moves along in the late stages towards enactment, Karen Ignagni has stated many times that this bill does not require the government to do enough to control health care spending. The industry has been struggling with innovations in health plans to slow the increase in premiums, which are already placing a strain on individuals and businesses. Health care costs are so high that they can no longer provide insurance products with affordable premiums if those products are designed to provide adequate protection from financial hardship for those who actually need health care.
Working with Congress, the Congressional Budget Office, and now academically-compromised Jonathan Gruber, the industry has seen that their proposal must leave perhaps tens of millions without insurance, and leave the majority of working families with plans set at actuarial values that are so low that anyone who needs health care will still face major bills. The answer to this problem was to be found in the subsidies, but for them to be adequate would require a massive increase in government spending. Neither Congress nor the Obama administration were willing to consider the massive tax increases that would be required to make this work.
Increasingly unaffordable premiums for plans with diminishing benefits increases the instability of the private insurance market. The insurers should rightfully fear that the time is not far away when our policy makers would decide that we finally would have to replace the insurance industry with an efficient single payer system that actually would provide everyone the essential care that they need. They know that they cannot possibly deliver of the promise of affordable health care for everyone.
So what do they like about the status quo? The largest, healthiest, least expensive sector – the employer-sponsored market – is still working very well for them. In fact, that market would change very little with the current legislation, though the insurance industry would be inconvenienced with some additional regulatory oversight. The private Medicare Advantage plans are working well for them as well, but they would not be as lucrative under the reform proposal. The individual market works well for them because they can skim off the healthy, but they would have to include the high-cost chronically ill under the reformed system, making plans even less affordable.
Why would they want to comply with all of the other measures in this bill when they already have most of what they want, and they are very effectively avoiding what they don’t want? If they can kill this bill, they would be much better off.
What we have now is not working – too many are uninsured, and too many of the insured still face excessive medical bills. What this legislation proposes will not work – too many would remain uninsured, and too many of the insured would still face excessive medical bills. What we could have, an improved Medicare for everyone, would work – everyone would be insured, and no one would have to face excessive medical bills. Furthermore, as a nation, it would provide us with a financing system that we could afford, unlike our current system or the system in the flawed proposal.
AHIP, Aetna, Cigna, Humana, Kaiser Foundation Health Plans, UnitedHealth Group and Wellpoint have lied to us, telling us that they support reform while secretly spending millions on a campaign to defeat it. Congress and President Obama now have every reason to show these crooks the door, and they should do so immediately.
Banks Prepare for Big Bonuses, and Public Wrath
By Louise Story and Eric Dash
The New York Times
January 9, 2010
The bank bonus season, that annual rite of big money and bigger egos, begins in earnest this week, and it looks as if it will be one of the largest and most controversial blowouts the industry has ever seen.
Industry executives acknowledge that the numbers being tossed around — six-, seven- and even eight-figure sums for some chief executives and top producers — will probably stun the many Americans still hurting from the financial collapse and ensuing Great Recession.
Though Wall Street bankers and traders earn six-figure base salaries, they generally receive most of their pay as a bonus based on the previous year’s performance. While average bonuses are expected to hover around half a million dollars, they will not be evenly distributed. Senior banking executives and top Wall Street producers expect to reap millions. Last year, the big winners were bond and currency traders, as well as investment bankers specializing in health care.
Even some industry veterans warn that such paydays could further tarnish the financial industry’s sullied reputation. John S. Reed, a founder of Citigroup, said Wall Street would not fully regain the public’s trust until banks scaled back bonuses for good — something that, to many, seems a distant prospect.
“There is nothing I’ve seen that gives me the slightest feeling that these people have learned anything from the crisis,” Mr. Reed said. “They just don’t get it. They are off in a different world.”
Amongst the biggest winners for the bonus paydays are the investment bankers specializing in health care.
Not only do these people not get it, the members of Congress and the Obama administration who insist that these people be left in charge don’t get it either. Or, worse yet, maybe they do.
Using a Pfizer Grant, Courses Aim to Avoid Bias
By Duff Wilson
The New York Times
January 11, 2010
Stanford University on Monday will announce plans to develop new continuing education programs for doctors that will be devoid of the drug industry influence that has often permeated such courses.
The work is being done with a $3 million grant — from the drug maker Pfizer.
Dr. Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford medical school, says Pfizer will have no say on how the three-year grant will be spent. The university plans to set up unbiased programs of postgraduate education on the Stanford campus rather than the industry-selected topics of the past that have been presented to rooms full of doctors at hotels and resorts.
“It’s a fundamental change,” Dr. Pizzo said Sunday, criticizing the drug industry for poisoning educational programs with marketing messages and doctors for “complicity” in taking speaker fees and expenses-paid trips. He called the grant “a novel rebooting.”
Pfizer, in a statement, said it wanted to help redefine how continuing medical education was financed to ensure the independence and patient benefit of the programs, which most doctors are required to take to maintain their state medical licenses.
“The announcement is self-satirizing,” said Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, a Georgetown University medical professor who has researched and written about industry influence in continuing medical education. “Pfizer’s interest in better ways to manipulate physicians is well-known.”
Dr. Fugh-Berman said that Pfizer has major products in two of the four areas that the Stanford press release suggested might be pursued: smoking cessation and heart disease.
Dr. Arnold S. Relman, a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, a Harvard professor emeritus, an outspoken critic of industry conflicts and a friend of Dr. Pizzo, said he could not understand the rationale behind the arrangement.
“If it is true — a big, big if — but if it is true that this money is being given without any strings at all and without any obligation on the part of Stanford to please Pfizer, then it’s arguable that it’s O.K.,” Dr. Relman said.
“But it’s just not a good idea for a profession that says it wants to be independent and trusted, a reliable source of information to the profession and the public about drugs, to take money from the drug company under any conditions.”
This tempering of the contingencies attached to Pfizer’s grant to Stanford’s continuing medical education program (CME) seems like a very small anecdote in the overall picture of health care reform, but it has greater significance than would appear at first blush.
Stanford’s Dean Philip Pizzo has a well deserved reputation for taking principled stands on the ethics of medical education and health care in general. This agreement to accept the Pfizer grant only on the condition that its use in their CME program be exclusively controlled by Stanford, without further input by Pfizer, is another step towards Dr. Pizzo’s goal of a system largely freed from the albatross of ethical compromise.
Are there any reasons that Stanford should not have accepted these funds? The first and most obvious reason is that this expense for Pfizer will be passed on to patients in the form of higher drug prices, already a serious problem that policy makers face.
Also, since Pfizer can deduct this as a business expense, the tax subsidies that we are providing are being turned over to Pfizer, which has control over how to distribute those funds. Do we really believe that a private, investor-owned pharmaceutical corporation has a greater ethical sense and wisdom in determining the use of our taxpayer funds than would our own public stewards? Likely Stanford will make very good use of the funds, but of the options for use of the taxpayer-funded component, is that the best use? It doesn’t seem right to turn that decision over to Pfizer, especially when it appears that the CME programs may still support Pfizer products, but only if Stanford decides so (certainly an ethical problem if and when it comes time to renew the Pfizer grant).
CME programs provide a social good: better health care for everyone. Public funding would prevent such ethical compromises and would help to ensure that CME programs have a mission to improve patient care rather than a mission to advance the pecuniary interests of pharmaceutical and medical-tech firms.
The ethical premise behind the concept of a single payer national health program – an improved Medicare for all – resets the primary mission for our entire health care system from one of private entrepreneurialism to one of service for the benefit of patients.
Dean Pizzo is to be admired for trying to achieve the best under the confines of our current dysfunctional system. You work with what you have, until you have something better.
The greater significance of this anecdote is that the rules under which we operate are wrong, and we need to change them, not just work within their confines as Congress is trying to do. We need a single payer monopsony that belongs to all of us – the people of this nation.
By Jeoffry B. Gordon, MD, MPH
Any doctor with a brain and a heart who practices medicine these days has daily experiences with the many disastrous shortcomings of our medical system. As the graph below shows we spend nearly $8000 per person per year on health services involving 18% of our GDP and we have worse out comes. We all know that medical care in the United States is poorly distributed, has less than optimal outcomes, and is hugely expensive.
In the last year we have witnessed a vociferous and prolonged public debate about health care reform – the most vigorous and comprehensive in 50 years. This has had the beneficial effect of bringing knowledge of the failings of our health care system into the daily discussions and awareness of large numbers of Americans. While passage of the resulting legislation seems imminent, the process and the outcome in the public square, while often passionate, have been greatly askew – one could even say deceitful, distorted and ineffective. We all know it is shocking to see the proposed reform revolve around tax subsidized premiums to health insurance companies – which are the source of huge administrative complexity and inefficiencies, thus wasted monies. It is shocking to listen to national experts tell us that more emphasis on information technology and preventive medicine will go a long way to cure our systemic problems. It is shocking not to hear about the excess burden of disease and mortality born by minority citizens. It is shocking not to hear about the expanding deficit of primary doctors, of the shortage of trained nurses, of the huge debt burden of many medical students, or the excessive proliferation of MRI machines and other profit producing technologies. At the same time it is even more shocking, one might say even repulsive, to hear the shrill and distorted rhetoric of the opponents of health reform – focusing on topics like “love of my insurance company,” “insurance required abortions,” “death panels,” “socialism” and government takeover, denial of care due to recommendations of expert panels using evidenced based medicine studies, and the declaration that the United States can be proud of its exemplary health outcomes. For those of us committed to health reform, it is imperative to review and understand the events and the process of the past year in order to formulate a better strategy for accomplishing the reforms which will improve the health of Americans at a reasonable cost.
Any analysis of contemporary national public policy on health reform must be based on the insight that the health insurance companies had successfully structured the process in their interest before it even began. Single payer health reform, the elimination of the private health insurance sector, was firmly and totally “off the table” from the very start. President Obama was so opposed to the idea that none of the 140 luminaries invited to the First White House Conference on Health Reform were single payer proponents – until 2 were invited at the last minute after protests were being organized outside. It is important to get past the statistics of the huge amounts of money spent by the health insurance industry on lobbying and campaign contributions, of the many former Congressional, White House, and government officials who became health reform lobbyists. Insight comes when you realize that the chief health aide to Senator Max Baucus, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is Elizabeth J. Fowler, JD, PhD, who after serving many years as Health and Entitlements Counsel to the Committee left to become a Vice President of Wellpoint Health Insurance and then returned to the Senate Committee to literally write Senator Baucus’ bill. It would also be prudent to recognize that Senator (fmr D, Conn) Joe Lieberman’s wife was a former health insurance company lobbyist and Senator (D, Indiana) Evan Bayh’s wife was on the Board of Directors of Wellpoint insurance, and so on. All the activists’ efforts to educate, confront or otherwise influence Washington principals, all the think tanks, academics, and accumulated data had a vanishing little impact on the final legislative proposals. It is important to remember that the so-called “public option” was first introduced as a pro-competitive, cost-cutting government program as a practical compromise short of single payer and preserving the private insurance market. This could have had an improved competition in the system and based on market principles had the potential to be a real cost saver. When a study showed that up to 135 million Americans might be eligible and able to choose it, it was quickly disparaged and the insurance lobby saw to it that it was whittled away to an impotent remnant that might cover 5 to 8 million people, and then eliminated. Now we have “Health Insurance Exchanges” which especially if done on the state level will be impotent as well. A brief enthusiastic compromise effort to expand Medicare to age 55 was snuffed out quietly and quickly by the same insurance lobbyists as soon as it was realized that it could be the first step to universal Medicare.
Toward the fall, the health insurance industry was still anxious about the direction of the legislation and showed its anxiety by conducting and releasing several reports predicting the failure and excessive costs of the then proposed reforms. These reports were so obviously self serving that there was a brief, vociferous backlash. This brought to light the previously neglected, extraordinary fact that the insurance industry, along with baseball, is exempt from federal regulation and anti-trust law. This was due to the McCarran-Ferguson Act (15 U.S.C. 1001) which was passed by Congress in 1945 to nullify a Supreme Court ruling that insurance could be regulated by the federal government via the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as interstate commerce. This law naturally covered developing health insurance products leaving them to state regulation and supervision. This law also forced health care financing to be subjected to the perversities of ERISA law and to intra-state monopolies by health insurance companies. For a brief moment of anger and insight repeal of McCarran-Ferguson was included in the draft health reform legislation. Then it was quickly and quietly removed.
The idea that the problems with medical care outcomes, or even with health care financing, could be solved by the currently proposed legislation falsely follows the Massachusetts model which is currently demonstrating its lack of cost control, lack of restraint on insurance company behavior, and strain on primary care. The politicians have grabbed a model that optimizes the outcomes for the health insurance companies. L. Randall Wray, an economist at the University of Missouri-KC put it best last October 11, 2009:
“Here’s Wall Street’s newest and bestest gamble: there is a huge untapped market of some 50 million people who are not paying insurance premiums—and the number grows every year because employers drop coverage and people can’t afford premiums. Solution? Health insurance “reform” that requires everyone to turn over their pay to Wall Street. Can’t afford the premiums? That is OK—Uncle Sam will kick in a few hundred billion to help out the insurers. Of course, do not expect more health care or better health outcomes because that has nothing to do with “reform”. …They’ll collect the extra premiums and deny the claims. This is just another bailout of the financial system, because the tens of trillions of dollars already committed are not nearly enough.
“You might wonder about the connection between insurance and Wall Street finance. They are two peas in a pod. Indeed, we threw out the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial banking from investment banking and insurance with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 … that let Wall Street form Bank Holding Companies that integrate the full range of “financial services” such as loans and deposits, that sell toxic waste mortgage securities to your pension funds, that create commodity futures indexes for university endowments to drive up the price of your petrol, and that take bets on the deaths [and health] of firms, countries, and your loved ones. “
In fact, it should have been apparent to anyone who was watching that any movement toward real health reform would peter out and fail after there was a wholly inadequate institutional, political, cultural, and media response to the economic debacle in the fall of 2008. The only major public figure who confessed to a failure of ideology was Alan Greenspan. No other main stream political leader or public institution diagnosed the financial collapse as a total failure and repudiation of the government de-regulated, laissez faire, market driven, profit making, financial institutional dominance political philosophy (facilitated by both the Republican and the Democratic Parties)which had sucked our country into a dark hole. Without a clear and strategic, articulate insight into the nature and breadth of the economic crisis and courageous leadership, real financial and health reform and remediation have been impossible. President Obama selected his financial and economic team from the very Wall Street players who were intimately part of the debacle. Then, as the Republicans have properly observed, unconscionable amounts of tax payer money have been thrown into the banking and finance system with astonishingly little targeting, oversight or fiduciary supervision. And even to this day there has been no legislative reform of the regulation of the financial system, nor substantive governmental intervention in its functioning. In this context, the barriers to real health reform are only a side show. White House town halls, brief visits to the Cleveland or Mayo Clinics, noting the cost of medical education, discussions about electronic medical records, or primary care deficiencies, or obesity or touting the medical home or preventive medicine were all media enticing diversions and mere window dressing. As finance capital continues to control all 3 branches of our national government, it was to be expected that public policy about health care reform would end up seeking to maximize profits by the insurance industry. As Michael Moore has said, “There has been a coup d’etat in this country and Goldman Sacks won.”
Due to the dominant importance of the financial interests of the health insurance industry (and our politicians’ subservience to them) all of the hard facts, rational analysis, objective national and international data, and all of the reform planning and policy projects – whether in the clinical realm or in the areas of administration and finance – done by the many government agencies, private foundations, academic institutions, grass roots organizations, and think tanks have been basically impotent and irrelevant. The political movers of public policy and, especially, the opponents of reform have studiously avoided dealing with any of the tragic hard facts about the contemporary provision of medical care and its financing. It was painful to hear Senate Minority Leader (R-Kentucky) Mitch McConnell declare, “We have the best health care system in the world.” Or Senator (R-Iowa) Chuck Grassley complain in August that “(You) should not have a government run plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma.” Or to hear House Minority Leader, Congressman (R-Ohio) John Boehner tell the press, “I’m still trying to find the first American to talk to who’s in favor of the public option….This is about as unpopular as a garlic milkshake.” The Republicans are clearly handicapped by their one note ideological opposition to government agency to solve any problem short of war or protection of the unborn, even in the face of a total objective failure of their philosophy. And the Democrats have become equally impotent by their refusal to acknowledge the fundamental foundational significance and origins of the economic crisis and by their attempts to accommodate and build bipartisanship with the obstreperous Republicans. The Republicans are patently absurd to propose income tax refunds or health savings accounts as the public policy for optimal funding of health insurance for the working poor or the unemployed. It is tragic to see the political leadership of our country so purposefully turning a blind eye to the hardship and suffering of millions of their constituents. It is certainly demoralizing for involved citizens to see our elected officials, whether in support or in opposition, promote rhetorical name calling, deceitful analyses and avoid honest debate on the issues.
It has been even more provocative and threatening to have experienced – as we did this summer – the angry hatred of the so-called Tea Party protesters, the Palin People and their friends. It is crucially important to understand the origin and implications of this phenomenon in order to plan for success in the future. In fact, it is only by understanding their forceful energy and beliefs that we can make any sense of this phenomenon at all. Clearly the issues and fears of these citizens are not based on the facts nor any reality concerning clinical medical care, actual government policies, or its proposed administration and financing. Furthermore it must be recognized that these protests have been mobilized and magnified with hundreds of millions of dollars from the same well documented vast array of very wealthy donors and foundations (Including the health insurance industry) which have undertaken to destroy good government over the past twenty years. In addition, their vehement disruptiveness and distain for civil discourse has been explicitly and eagerly endorsed by and participated in by the Republican Party itself. One can accept the legitimacy of the vehemence of their energies, even if it is impossible to agree with the actual content of what they are saying. The content of their fears, and the source of their opposition, is both emotional and ideological. The emotional issues are serious and very important because they fuel their anger and its threat of violence. Their fervor has two sources: (1) the perceived disruption of personal security and the natural order of things created by the election of a Black President and (2) the huge economic dislocations and economic insecurity our country and each family are experiencing at this time. Only by understanding how threatening and tumultuous these circumstances are to those involved can we make sense of the forceful deceived rhetoric and the mass psychology of this summer’s protests. While the racism of these folks has its origin in their primal immaturity and class culture and cannot be excused, frankly it is important to respect their economic fears – and this is crucial for successful health care reform. As will be demonstrated below, the President, both political parties, major cultural leaders and commentators, and most main stream media as well as most bloggers and critics, both currently and in the past, have been desperately trying to get the country to ignore or minimize the economic and social painful transformation and decline of the United States over the past few decades and the tragic harm-multiplier of last year’s economic collapse and its continuing impact. This neglect of our true economic circumstances is analogous the past President’s attempts to minimize the costs of war by forbidding photographs of returning dead soldiers.
GROUPS 1, 2, AND 3 (the top 10% of all income producers) ADD TO A TOTAL OF 50% 0F TOTAL NATIONAL FAMILY INCOME
We must now delve into the suppressed economic circumstances of the contemporary United States. As you can see from the figures above, from 1943 through 1983 our country had a stable sharing and distribution of incomes – and prosperity – which carried us forward from a recovery after a horrible war through the awakening and the challenges of the civil rights movement and beyond. It was this period which created and supported our cultural self image of a generous, pluralistic, idealistic, humanistic, equitable civil American society. First, note that this graph ends before the additional impact of the current depression. Second, note that the period since 1998 has created a concentration of wealth among the top 1% of families unseen since the years immediately preceding the Great Depression. And third note that this transformation in our society started in 1983 with the Presidential election victory of Ronald Reagan and the ascendency of the deregulating, laissez faire, anti-government economic philosophy of the Republic Party. Yes, the Tea Party and Palin People folks have every right to be angry. The economic evolution of our country has stolen their birthright and the current economic mess has put the nail in the coffin of their hopes. And it is more than their problem: while we have been looking the other way, the economic catastrophe of the last 18 months has been destroying the middle class. Today about 20% of Americans are unemployed, underemployed, or stopped looking for work. In the past decade the United States economy has had zero net job creation. Almost 10% cannot make the minimum payment of their credit cards; 12.5% are on food stamps (over 37 million people). A total of 10,000,000 Americans may lose their homes (6.2% of mortgages are in default). The current economic depression has wiped out $5 trillion in pensions and savings assets and another $13 trillion in housing assts. In 2008 median household income, adjusted for inflation, fell 3.6% to $50,303, the steepest drop in 40 years. The poverty rate in 2008 rose to 13.2%, the highest since 1997. And about 700,000 more Americans did not have health insurance in 2008 than in 2007. It goes without saying that the data for 2009 when it is in will be much worse.
If this shocking description does not motivate you to want to join the outrage of the Tea Party and Palin People, let me introduce you to a statistic called the Gini coefficient. This is a statistical index which can be used to quantify the level of income or wealth inequality in a country. It is compiled by such organizations as the United Nations and the CIA. Sweden captures the “world’s best” title (with an index of 23 (CIA) or 25 (UN). It keeps company with countries like Denmark (24), Austria (26) and Belgium (28). The average EU index is 31; Canada has an index of 32; and Great Britain has an index of 34. Before the current economic turmoil the United Sates had an index of 47 (its highest ever) and it keeps company with countries like Cameroon (44.5), Jamaica (45.5), Mexico (46.1), and the People’s Republic of China (46.9). Yes, while you weren’t looking our country has been turned into a banana republic. The ascendency of Wall Street, the crash of 2008 and the failure of health reform are prime symptoms of a much bigger problem. One way to look at the angst created by the gap between President Obama’s charisma and rhetoric and his performance in office is to see that it reflects our gut feeling that our Country has been taken in the wrong direction into a period of massive decline. We are responding to his abject failure to acknowledge these tragic facts and lead us in a better direction. Even worse – and his paradigm of health care reform proves it – he has chosen to kowtow to the interests of the financial sector.
Because these economic circumstances are so different from the prosperity of the sixties, contemporary political activism must use different strategies and tactics to achieve our aims. It is myopic and fraught with failure to merely pursue health reform in the era of what Kevin Phillips calls the rule of the plutocracy. This country needs a more fundamental transformation. Many Americans do not yet feel the anguish and failure in their gut like the Tea Party and Palin People folks but there is every reason we should. If we look at the Palin People and Tea Party as alien, we can see the seeds of fascism in their alienation and anger, similar to that experienced in Germany, Italy and Argentina before their takeover by the far right. On the other hand, if we identify with their distress – and get past our still relatively comfortable circumstances – we will have allies in taking our country back. We cannot be limited to our rational, professional analyses. Facts and data will not rule the day. There is no rational, beneficent debate going on. It has become clear and evident that all the foundation work, all the macro and micro system modeling, all the vital statistics of health outcomes and service maldistribution, all the shocking case studies, all the bankruptcies, and the morbidity, not to mention, mortality statistics have had little impact on the outcome of last year’s health reform process.
These observations lead to two complimentary paths which will help further the achievement of real health reform. For make no mistake about it, it is highly likely that the currently proposed federal legislation, if it is passed, will not greatly improve medical outcomes, will be an unacceptable financial burden both on individual families and on individual state and federal governments, and will not eliminate the horribly expensive administrative inefficiencies of our current private health insurance based system. Thus it is likely to become highly unpopular and its impact will further erode faith in government agency and the Democratic Party. Our approach to the current circumstances needs to be more strategic, more tightly organized, facilitated by better communication and coordination, and directed toward mobilizing a broader army of reform activists. First, working within the political system, we should focus on the strategy of creating state based initiatives to legislate state single payer systems. The practical fact is that at this time of economic contraction each and every state will be desperate for truly budget saving measures – and because of Medicaid and public employee health costs, real health reform will have major beneficial outcomes. The specific goal should be an amendment to the federal ERISA law to permit states to develop their own single payer systems. This focus will both continue to highlight the fundamental target in the health system debacle – the insurance companies – and energize political action at a level that is more strategically amenable to grass roots impact.
The second path of action lies in dramatically changing the tactics of progressive reform advocates. To put it plainly we must transcend our reliance on facts and data and get out there with an emotional message and captivating activities. As health care providers doctors and other practitioners are taught to maintain a professional demeanor and to maintain an emotional distance from their patients’ suffering and, furthermore, at the core our technical skills are based on analytical knowledge. It is obvious that carrying these habits into the political arena has not been effective. We have to catch up to our opponents – first in the passionate expression of the anguish and suffering that is abroad in the land and secondly in the enthusiastic demand for political attention. It is evident that physicians and nurses alone cannot create the momentum for change. We must actively recruit our own patients who have suffered the shortcomings of the system in large numbers as well as the staffs of institutions serving the underserved, such as municipal hospitals and free and community clinics, and those religious who will stand up for social justice. This outreach must occur in an on-going organized way so that we can create a critical mass. We cannot effectively bring our insights to the public square without a broader coalition at our side. Along with those mentioned above, the Tea Party and Palin People are, in fact, our allies and constituents, for it is they – whether rural plain folk, farmers, manual service workers, employed poor, family shopkeepers, restaurant servers and so on – who are most severely impacted by the expensive, poorly functioning health care system and by our failing national economy. And you can bet they are about to be joined by hordes of former middle class folk. Their conventional wisdom, that government is the problem, just happens to be wrong. We are now in an era of catastrophic decline and disarray generated by 30 years of the dominance of that political philosophy. It has dramatically failed. The alternative conservative or libertarian model of Individual and independent initiative surely will not be enough to solve these problems. We must reach out to fundamentalist churches, talk radio and other conservative media, for example, to respect their anxieties and debate their political paradigm. We need to broadly mobilize as many of these disaffected citizens as we can. We must directly challenge the conservative religious activists morally devoted to protecting the life of an unborn child to see that their morals must encompass and give priority to the duty to relieve the suffering of the living. Collective communal action through an effective democratic government is the major prerequisite for successfully solving our economic problems as well as the expensive dysfunction in health services. The only way forward on health reform is to correctly diagnose the massive economic disaster that has befallen our country and create an integrated, energized broad coalition to implement political change. Those professional groups, those labor unions, those in progressive political organizations must not only unite, but also reach out to enroll and involve the disaffected among us. Then we will be successful.
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