I feel something coming on in this country. Our healthcare reform effort is catching a bit of a cold. Actually it’s a virus. The Blue Dog and the Blue Blood flu. And this flu bug will kill far more people than the swine flu or the bird flu.
Here’s how we got sick…
Way back in the fall during the campaign season, we had great hope for an Obama administration that seemed to understand very clearly that healthcare is a human right. Then came the declarations of the new administration and the promises from Congress. We’ll get it done this year, they said. And because we all know thousands of American lives hang in the balance every month, we believed they meant to end the suffering and many of our leaders probably did intend to act.
But the bailout for Wall Street came first. Then more money flowed to the financial markets. And more money still. The work on healthcare reform was held back a bit as the economy’s failing and ailing was first in line for action.
Once the work began on healthcare, the Congress began its effort at what is for them breakneck speed. And President Obama staged carefully orchestrated events and press announcements to shore up that effort. It seemed as though the insurance industry’s investment of $1.4 million a day in lobby money would pay off handsomely in adoption of mandates for all of us to buy the private defective product that is for-profit health insurance, and the job of selling the American people on the notion that buying insurance equals extending healthcare to all seemed to be bumping along.
But then in came some of the numbers. It seems even with quite a little bit of lipstick on this pig, the costs are really high for bailing out the private health insurance industry and forcing all of us to buy the product combined with taxpayer-funded subsidies to enforce the mandates (to run the purchasing pools for the insurance industry, to punish and fine those who don’t comply and to pay part of the premiums for low-income folks).
Money was needed to protect the insurance companies’ interests and big Pharma and the American Medical Association. Big profit margins and big salaries and big dividends are at stake here. So how would Congress make that fly? And the President who promised no taxes on benefits?
First they said, “OK, maybe we’ll tax those benefits.” Then they said, “And maybe the rich should pay more taxes – like they did before.” And funding some sort of public option caused consternation. As details were released, it seemed every point was cause for alarm from yet another corner of the playing field.
Sniff, sniff. Americans were losing their jobs and their employer based benefits at the rate of 14,000 every single day. It’s hard to keep the costs of subsidizing the purchase of private insurance down when you gain thousands of potential subsidy-recipients a day. Estimates came in with big, big price tags. Not quite as big as our Wall Street bailout but big enough – more than a trillion-and-a-half.
Nerves began to fray. And the rich began weighing in with their elected officials. The rich, after all, are the voters who give money to campaigns. They are protected as primary stakeholders in the process.
Various coalitions of Congressional members began laying down their healthcare lines in the sand. And the only thing I can tell for sure is that the average American citizen is not being well represented by any of the power-wielding folks in these coalitions.
In the House of Representatives, the Blue Dog Coalition bills itself as protector of the fiscal well-being of the nation. They claim to be Democrats on social policy but when push comes to shove they sound as much like Democrats as Lou Dobbs sounds like a working class journalist. Not quite. Both make me crabby. And the Blue Dog Coalition is stalling out the progress on the healthcare reform bill in the House. They say they are waiting for compromise that will hold down costs.
Yet just a few weeks ago, at the invitation of Baron Hill of Indiana, the Blue Dog Coalition heard a healthcare reform plan that would hold down costs and provide access to healthcare to all. The Blue Dogs had a physician-led briefing on single-payer healthcare. That’s right. It was a closed-door, invitation only, we’ll-cancel-it-if-anyone-finds-out sort of affair. So the Blue Dogs know there really is a way to hold down costs and honor their fiscal conservatism. Despite evidence of the economic and human rights benefits of a single-payer system, the Blue Dogs would rather compromise the health and well-being of millions of Americans.
As for the Blue Bloods in Congress, while not represented by a formally named coalition, the wealthy folks in this nation who object to being taxed to pay for healthcare reform began weighing in hot and heavy with their elected officials. Suddenly, 22 members of Congress – even some who have supported and even campaigned on single-payer reform – wrote a letter to leadership saying they could not support a reform bill that taxed wealthier interests more heavily. Even terrific single-payer supporters like Jared Polis of Colorado and Eric Massa of New York lodged their concerns about a tax on the wealthy. It was a very polite letter, but it made no mention of single-payer healthcare as a solution. An opportunity was missed, in my opinion, to at least make mention of what they know about the topic and its economic benefits to the nation – and to the health of businesses in this nation.
Blue Dogs and Blue Bloods. In a Congress with a Democratic majority and with a Democratic President (and son of a cancer victim who struggled with her insurance company), we just cannot seem to shake the bug.
I heard the President say on Wednesday night, “I want to cover everybody. Now, the truth is that, unless you have a single-payer system, in which everybody is automatically covered, then you're probably not going to reach every single individual."
OK. Good. At least we’re acknowledging we’re not standing for equal rights for all where healthcare is concerned. Sad. Now the Blue Dogs and the Blue Bloods just need to be honest that we’re not about everyone paying his or her fair share either.
My husband carries Medicare and supplemental insurance. Premiums, co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses take more than 35 percent of his income. He seems to think that’s a bit high. But he says he’s heard that the rich are angry if they think they’d have to pay 9 percent of their incomes toward healthcare costs or 26 percentage points less than many of the poor, dumb working-class folks pay now. Would that be OK? He suspects not.
Because in a nation with the Blue Dog and Blue Blood flu, any plan that cuts into the wealth of those who fund the campaigns will be challenged and corrupted. Just like is being done right now. The deaths and the suffering of millions of people have been weighed against the needs of the wealthy and influential, and guess who is coming out on top?
The cure for this flu is the truth. And until we see clearly the real estimated costs of a true single-payer system, the gamesmanship will continue. If we truly care about the health of this nation, to be less than fully honest is risking the death of our long-held belief that every life matters, not just those with the means to influence the results.
Is there cause for hope? Oh, yes, definitely. In the House, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich scored the only true bipartisan win on a healthcare amendment to date. He offered an amendment to the House Tri-Committee bill that would allow states to pass and implement single-payer plans if they so choose. The amendment passed out of the Education and Labor Committee last week with a nearly equal number of Democratic and Republican votes. And in the Senate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also offered a single-payer amendment to the HELP Committee bill. The amendment failed but Sanders plans another run at the issue later on down the road when the Senate considers its full bill on the floor.
We can do this. We can get over this blue flu that clouds what is possible with the worries about what is probable if we pass an awful plan. I will hope that among the Blue Dogs and Blue Bloods we’ll see some courageous supermen and superwomen emerge who call for a little truth and a little justice. That would be the American way. So we’d better get busy and make sure we encourage that emergence.