Sick with Terror

The media have been swamped with reports
about the attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas
Day. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, now dubbed the "underwear bomber,"
failed in his alleged attack, close to 300 people were spared what
would have been, most likely, a horrible, violent end. Since that
airborne incident, the debates about terrorism and how best to protect
the American people have been reignited.

Meanwhile, a killer that has stalked the
U.S. public, claiming, by recent estimates, 45,000 lives annually-one
dead American about every 10 minutes-goes unchecked. That's 3,750
people dead-more than the 9/11 attacks-every month who could be saved
with the stroke of a pen.

This killer is the lack of adequate health
care in the United States. Researchers from Harvard Medical School
found in late 2009 that 45,000 people die unnecessarily every year due
to lack of health insurance. Researchers also uncovered another
stunning fact: In 2008, four times as many U.S. Army veterans died
because they lacked health insurance than the total number of U.S.
soldiers who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same period.
That's right: 2,266 veterans under the age of 65 died because they were
uninsured.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama was
fiery when he made his public statement after meeting with his national
security team about the airline breach: In seeking to thwart plans to
kill Americans "we face a challenge of the utmost urgency," he said. He
talked about reviewing systemic failures and declared we must "save
innocent lives, not just most of the time, but all of the time."

This is all very admirable. Imagine if
this same urgency was applied to a broken system that causes 45,000
unnecessary deaths per year. Since stimulus funds will now be directed
to supply more scanning equipment at airports, what about spending
money to ensure mammograms and prostate exams at community health
centers?

And then there's the investigation of who is responsible for the
attempted Christmas Day attack and getting "actionable intelligence"
from the alleged bomber to prevent future attacks. All good.

We actually have "actionable intelligence"
on why people die due to lack of health care, and how insurance
companies actively deny people coverage to increase their profits, but
what has been done about it?

The day before the underwear bomb
incident, Christmas Eve, the U.S. Senate passed The Patient Protection
and Affordable Care Act by a vote of 60 to 39. Obama described the bill
as "the most important piece of social legislation since the Social
Security Act passed in the 1930s." Yet in order to get to that magic
number of 60 Senate votes, the already weak Senate bill had to be
brought to its knees by the likes of Sen. Joe Lieberman, from the
health insurance state of Connecticut, and conservative Democrat Ben
Nelson of Nebraska. The Senate and House versions of health insurance
reform now have to be reconciled in conference committee.

The conference committee process is one
that is little understood in the U.S. In it major changes to
legislation are often imposed, with little or no notice. That's why
C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb sent a letter to congressional leaders Dec. 30
requesting access to televise the process. He wrote, "[W]e respectfully
request that you allow the public full access, through television, to
legislation that will affect the lives of every single American."
Rather than simply grant access, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserted
that "there has never been a more open process."

Yet Pelosi and the Democrats are now
saying that the bills won't even go through a formal conference
committee, but rather through informal, closed-door sessions with key
committee chairs. While this would circumvent Republican opportunities
to filibuster, it would also grant a very few individuals enormous
power to cut deals in much the same way that Sens. Nelson and Lieberman
did. Since the health insurance, medical equipment and pharmaceutical
industries spent close to $1.4 million per day to influence the health
care debate, we have to ask: Who will have access to those few
legislators behind those closed doors?

Wendell Potter, the former CIGNA insurance
spokesperson turned whistle-blower, says he knows "where the bodies are
buried." Let's be consistent. If we care about saving American lives,
let's take action now.



Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.