No Hope For Healthcare?

During his run for the presidency, Barack Obama published a document titled, A Platform In Support Of The Arts, a multi-point public statement detailing the candidate’s position regarding the arts in America that garnered a great deal of attention and praise from creative professionals. One of the items on Mr. Obama’s agenda specifically addressed the issue of health care for artists. The following is a verbatim reprint from Obama’s original document:

Provide Health Care to Artists: Finding affordable health coverage has often been one of the most vexing obstacles for artists and those in the creative community. Since many artists work independently or have non-traditional employment relationships, employer-based coverage is unavailable and individual policies are financially out of reach. Barack Obama’s plan will provide all Americans with quality, affordable health care. His plan includes the creation of a new public program that will allow individuals and small businesses to buy affordable health care similar to that available to federal employees.

His plan also creates a National Health Insurance Exchange to reform the private insurance market and allow Americans to enroll in participating private plans, which would have to provide comprehensive benefits, issue every applicant a policy, and charge fair and stable premiums. For those who still cannot afford coverage, the government will provide a subsidy. His health plan will lower costs for the typical American family by up to $2,500 per year.”

While it is commendable that a politician would recognize the unique needs of the self-employed creative community when it comes to health care, I always found the words “affordable health coverage” to be problematic. Affordable to whom? What is reasonably priced to someone making more than $100,000 a year is prohibitive to someone making less than $20,000. The great majority of artists simply cannot afford a health plan, and in these tough economic times many artists are now faced with the challenge of either purchasing the supplies necessary to carry on with their work, or buying the basic necessities of life. In such a context, there is no such thing as “affordable.”

Mr. Obama told the arts community that his reform plan would allow arts professionals to either purchase health insurance from a low cost government-run “public option” insurance program, or from private insurance companies. He maintained that reasonably priced government insurance coverage would “force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest” - while inducing those companies to drop their rates. The public option concept was promoted as a cornerstone of Obama’s health care reform message, marketed not only to creative professionals, but to the wider U.S. public on a continual basis.

Obama-care has been an amorphous and ever-changing scheme; nevertheless loyal supporters of Obama and the Democratic Party attempted to rally the citizenry behind the public option banner. Then came crushing news from the Associated Press on August 16 – White House appears ready to drop public option;

“Bowing to Republican pressure and an uneasy public, President Barack Obama’s administration signaled Sunday it is ready to abandon the idea of giving Americans the option of government-run insurance as part of a new health care system.”

Of the several health care bills currently being crafted in Washington, it is the one being worked out by the bipartisan Senate Finance Committee that seems to have curried favor with President Obama. The proposal from Republican and conservative “Blue Dog” Democratic Senators contains no public option; instead putting forward “medical co-ops” as an alternative. But if co-ops could actually act as an effective counterbalance to the dominance of multi-billion dollar insurance companies, then free-market conservatives and the health industry would oppose them.

On August 6, 2009, BusinessWeek published a penetrating article titled, The Health Insurers Have Already Won, detailing how “UnitedHealth and rival carriers, maneuvering behind the scenes in Washington, shaped health-care reform for their own benefit.” As the article pointed out, on June 4, 2009 the chief executive of insurance giant UnitedHealth, gave a visit to Senator Kent Conrad (Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee), and thereafter the good Senator:

“led an effort to create nonprofit medical cooperatives that would operate much like utility co-ops as a substitute for a federally run plan. With less heft than a proposed national plan, the state medical cooperatives would pose a far weaker competitive threat to private insurers. (….) The industry has already accomplished its main goal of at least curbing, and maybe blocking altogether, any new publicly administered insurance program that could grab market share from the corporations that dominate the business.”

On August 5, 2009, the New York Times ran an explosive article titled, White House Affirms Deal on Drug Cost, reporting on a secret deal made by President Obama with the pharmaceutical industry.  The deal placed a ceiling on the amount of money the U.S. government can save when using its enormous purchasing power to negotiate for lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies like Merck, Pfizer, and Abbot Laboratories. The opening paragraph of the New York Times piece was damning enough:

“Pressed by industry lobbyists, White House officials on Wednesday assured drug makers that the administration stood by a behind-the-scenes deal to block any Congressional effort to extract cost savings from them beyond an agreed-upon $80 billion.”

The disclosure that lobbyists for multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies swayed President Obama, who had promised his administration would be impervious to the machinations of special interest lobbyists – was a political bombshell to some. According to the Associated Press, the pharmaceutical giants are sealing their agreement by providing the White House with up to $200 million in advertising to “help” President Obama push through his health care plan. The AP reported that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), launched a public relations campaign supporting Obama’s health plan that “includes television advertising under PhRMA’s own name and commercials aired in conjunction with the liberal group, Families USA.” The AP story also noted that PhRMA has so far already spent more than $6 million in nationwide advertising in support of Obama-care.

It is interesting to note that in his remarks delivered at the August 11, 2009 New Hampshire Town Hall Meeting on health-care, President Obama mentioned the $80 billion in supposed drug cost “savings” but failed to mention the deal he made with the pharmaceutical giants to help boost their profits.

In a July 6, 2009 article titled, Familiar Players in Health Bill Lobbying, The Washington Post reported that “the nation’s largest insurers, hospitals and medical groups have hired more than 350 former government staff members and retired members of Congress in hopes of influencing their old bosses and colleagues.” The article observed that the lobbyists “are part of a record-breaking influence campaign by the health-care industry, which is spending more than $1.4 million a day on lobbying in the current fight.” The Washington Post went on to note that PhRMA “doubled its spending to nearly $7 million in the first quarter of 2009, followed by Pfizer, with more than $6 million”, and that overall “health-care companies and their representatives spent more than $126 million on lobbying in the first quarter.”

Under President Obama’s plan, with or without the so-called “public option”, tens of millions of American citizens will be legally obliged to purchase health insurance, which presents nothing less than a colossal financial boon for the private insurance industry and the pharmaceutical giants. The total compensation for insurance company CEO’s in 2008 was $67,859,239. Robert A. Williams, CEO of Aetna, made $24,300,112, H. Edward Hanway of Cigna brought in $12,236,740. What do these ridiculously extravagant salaries have to do with delivering quality healthcare to the nation’s citizenry? Real reform is impossible if private insurance companies are to play a role in the nation’s health care system.

The only logical remedy to the U.S. health care crisis is the implementation of publicly funded and privately delivered health care for everyone – Medicare for All - a “Single-Payer Health Care” system based upon need and not the ability to pay. Under such a plan every American would receive comprehensive services for all medical needs. Health care providers would be paid through a single non-profit fund that is run in the public interest, and billing, deductibles, and co-payments would be eliminated. Insurance companies would have no role in delivering health care. A proposal for such a health care system has been introduced in the U.S. Congress (H.R. 676), and it is backed by some ninety legislators. Physicians For A National Health Program (PNHP) have launched a campaign to pressure the Obama administration to adopt single-payer health reform, which Obama initially supported long ago as a Senator, but now consistently opposes.

At his August 11th Town Hall Meeting in New Hampshire, the only reason President Obama could give for not supporting single-payer health care was that, in his words: “we historically have had a employer-based system in this country, with private insurers, and for us to transition to a system like that, I believe, would be too disruptive.” In other words, President Obama can bail out Wall Street to the tune of some $23.7 trillion, or spend hundreds of billions on fighting a war in Afghanistan, but providing universal health care to the American people is “too disruptive.”

Meanwhile, here in my home city of Los Angeles, thousands of people have lined up at the L.A. Forum indoor arena to receive free healthcare from the volunteer doctors of the charity organization, Remote Area Medical (RAM). Initially created to bring free medical care to Third World countries,  RAM now provides essential health care to the working poor living in isolated rural areas of the U.S. like Appalachia. The L.A. Forum clinic was the first time RAM had operated in a major American city. Surely this is not what was meant by the slogan, “Change We Can Believe In.”

“I want to cover everybody. Now, the truth is unless you have what’s called a single-payer system in which everyone’s automatically covered, you’re probably not going to reach every single individual.” - President Barack Obama, prime time news conference. July 22, 2009.

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