Thursday, December 17, 2009

POLITICS: Why This Health Care Bill Must Be Killed (And How Obama's Lack of Leadership Is To Blame)

Frankenstein had the good sense to kill himself. This monstrosity of a giveaway to insurance companies possesses no such conscience.

As much as the Obama administration might want to make history and get a health care reform bill passed into law, as much as progressives in this country want to see substantive changes made to our anomalous for-profit health care system, as much as every American needs reliable and affordable health that actually helps keep us healthy and takes care of us when we need it, this malformed health care reform bill currently being debated in the Senate needs to be taken out back and shot point blank in the head.

For this simple reason: at its core, this current Senate health care bill forces Americans to buy health insurance—ensuring HUGE additional profits to insurance companies—yet provides no tangible cost savings or premium-reducing measures to offset what we all will be required to pay. Once again, corporate money and lobbying power has helped create the EXACT OPPOSITE legislation American taxpayers need. We are forced to buy health insurance—or pay a fine for not buying insurance—and the insurance companies are not required to change much of anything that they do right now. But they’ll get billions more in premiums.

So who’s getting reformed by this health care “reform”?

The American taxpayer. We’ll be legally bound to continue paying increasingly high premiums. Isn’t that awesome? Didn’t our representatives do a great job of representing us? Fighting tooth and nail for American citizens long abused by a rigged health insurance industry? Wow. This really is historic legislation—historically repugnant.

The reason the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries have been so successful for the past 80 years or so in maintaining this completely rigged system is because of one elemental fact: they fight harder than the reformers. And that means us. Any substantive health care reform would mean billions of dollars would stop flowing into the insurance and pharmaceutical company coffers. Wouldn’t you fight like a cornered badger if someone wanted to take away your billions? As we’ve witnessed during this recent health care reform battle, the health insurance industry’s “investments” in Senators and Representatives since the last attempt at health care reform in 1993 is paying exceptional dividends. Not only do the health insurance and pharmaceutical TV ads and spokespeople blatantly lie and fear-monger on the subject, but they’ve also purchased via campaign contributions a whole battalion of craven Senators and Representatives who will gladly parrot the same lies and fear-mongering strategies just so long as “I can count on your help come election time, Mr. United Health Care lobbyist.”

But frankly, that’s old news. It doesn’t change. Never has, never will.

What does change is the President. And as much as it pains me to say this, as I supported him from early on in the last election, but one of the primary reasons for this monstrosity of a health care bill that we need to kill is the failure of leadership shown by President Barack Obama. Forget Droopy Dawg Joe Lieberman or insurance lackeys like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, and Mary Landrieu. The reason we may end up with a health care reform bill that will leave us in worse shape than we would be if we did nothing is because President Obama does not possess the “intestinal fortitude” to take on his opponents in the debate—the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Remember candidate Obama? He campaigned against mandates to buy insurance—people can’t afford insurance, he argued, so why force them to buy something they can’t afford? And I’m sure you will recall the centerpiece of his health care program when he campaigned? The public option. He went on at length about it—how a public option would create competition for the greedy insurance companies who were screwing the American public. He argued with Hilary Clinton about it during the primaries; he argued with John McCain about it during the election. And Obama’s ideas won.

So why hasn’t President Obama shown the same fire and desire as candidate Obama in pushing hard for the public option (or some form of it)? He came to office with a groundswell of support across the country—he had nothing but political capital to spend on health care reform, one of the primary reasons Americans voted him President. Why didn’t he use it? He certainly had no hesitation in wielding the power of the Presidency this summer when he and his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel strong-armed wavering Democratic Senators and Representatives who weren’t going to support his supplemental war funding request (see here). So why didn’t he play that kind of hardball with his party to get a robust public option made part of the health reform bill?

I think it’s becoming clear that the reason Obama failed to deliver on a public option requirement, failed to deliver on one of his top two or three campaign promises, is because he never really was committed to the idea because of how difficult it would be to accomplish. Major political and economic policy changes like reforming the health care system take vision, fierce determination, and a personal constitution that is willing to lay everything on the line for what you believe in and never stop fighting until you accomplish it. FDR had it—he got Social Security passed and nearly got universal health care included in it. LBJ had it—he got both the Civil Rights Act and Medicare passed. Even Ronald Reagan had it—he managed to buffalo a majority of the country into believing that if rich people and wealthy corporations pay very little tax, we will all become wealthy.

President Obama DOESN’T have it. Sad as it is to say as a staunch supporter during the election, but Obama appears to possess only Senator mettle. Maybe competent President mettle. But it doesn’t look like he’s got what it takes to be a great one, let alone an actual reformer.

Ask yourself this: if you ignited a majority of the country behind you in ways unlike any presidential candidate had in decades and decades, elicited support—financial and boots on the ground—from more new voters than any candidate in recent history, and swept easily into the White House with a commanding victory, wouldn’t you throw yourself whole hog into accomplishing the one or two major agenda items you ran on? Or would you take a completely passive approach to one of your major campaign promises, keeping an arms-length from it and never (as far as we’ve been able to learn) using your substantial political capital and the fierce urgency of now (remember that?) to strong-arm hesitant party members to make damn sure that you got the kind of reform you promised 70 million Americans?

If you need a more tangible, less theoretical reason for why I think Obama was never really up for the fight to make substantive changes to our health care system, let’s revisit the billion dollar deal he made in private with the pharmaceutical industry after taking office. Remember that? The White House denied any deal was struck—until an internal memo was leaked and they had to fess up (see here and here). Why, if you want to change the way health care works in this country, would you make this kind of deal with one of the industries that is part of the whole problem BEFORE any serious negotiations or legislation even started?

[UPDATE: On December 15th, the Senate defeated an amendment to the health reform bill to allow re-importation of drugs into the U.S., which would allow Americans to buy the same drugs we manufacture but sell in other countries for 1/3 or more of the price we currently pay. The sick thing is how many Democrats—allies of the President—voted to defeat this bill. Big pharma wins again!]

Other indications of Obama’s actual intentions in this health care debate have been making the news for the past eight months or so: no actual, detailed, specific health care plan ever offered by President Obama (“principles” are good for counselors and self-help proponents—they’re NOT serious policy from a serious President); Chief of Staff Emanuel telling progressive groups to stop running ads badgering Blue Democrats to support the public option; the White House deflecting criticism in public (and in private) of flies in the ointment like Joe Lieberman; Obama’s broken record recitation in closed door sessions with members of Congress about the historic nature of the health care bill—yet never making a serious, hard-nosed, “Change We Can Believe In” appeal to the waffling reps about getting this public option passed and substantively changing the whole health care system. There’s certainly more, and Glenn Greenwald from Salon catalogues them well here.

So because of either the failure of leadership of President Obama or because the current state of the health care Senate bill is actually what Obama wanted, it appears that once again we will get reform in the style of the previous Bush administration: Americans pay more money to established corporate interests for little to nothing in return. That’s what happened with Medicare part D, and it looks like we’re going the same route with Obama’s healthy care reform: we’re all going to be forced to buy insurance from the companies who have been screwing us for the past 20 years, and those very same companies won’t have to change the way they do business in any substantive way.

Not the change you believe in—or voted for last year? Do something about it. Call your Senators and Representatives and urge them NOT to vote for any health reform bill that mandates we buy insurance yet does not offer an affordable, government-run insurance plan as an option.

Here’s where you can find your Senators’ contact info:

Here’s where you can find your Representatives’ contact info:

And here’s President Obama’s contact info—let him know you don’t want him to sign a bill into law that perverts what candidate Obama would want: (202) 456-1111.

Finally: I came across this speech by FDR a while back and was struck by the language and passion and fearlessness of a President who enacted sweeping reforms. It’s from his 1936 nomination speech. Check out these few lines:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”

Can you imagine Obama saying something as truthful and as brazenly aggressive as that?

If you want to hear this great speech, check it out here:


  1. Great piece, Mike . . .


  2. Anonymous8:53 PM

    Thanks, Mike. I wasn't really aware that the current bill mandated buying coverage, but did not include a gov't run insurance option. Total jive. WRK

  3. Anonymous10:52 PM

    Well reasoned, well written. Makes me feel sick though ... rjc

  4. Anonymous4:15 PM

    Mike: Nicely written piece! Great Frankenstein analogy. I'm also frustrated over how health reform has turned out. Even so...sometimes you have to accept what you can get. If this bill fails, then it could be another four years before people with preexisting conditions are guaranteed coverage. And what would you say to the thousands of currently uncovered people who will receive Medicaid coverage under this proposed bill? And what about the parts of this bill related to reducing Medicare costs (so Medicare is viable in 10 years) and the part about paying hospitals, physicians, etc for quality (versus quantity)? I think we need to see health reform as a series of battles. If you sacrifice this battle, then we might not have a another chance like this for some time to come. So...although I like your piece, there's no way I'm telling my senator to vote no. Maggie V