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Kennedy and the Corporate Lobbyists Craft a Business-Friendly Health Plan

Ted’s Table

by HELEN REDMOND

So now we know where Senator Edward Kennedy has been in between treatments for his cancerous brain tumor and recuperating at his compound in Hyannisport, or at his other home in Florida. He’s been in secret, invitation only meetings with lobbyists from: Aetna, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the Business Roundtable, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PHRMA).

Apparently, Mr. Kennedy doesn’t give a rat’s ass about President Obama’s promise of transparency and limiting the influence of corporate lobbyists in his administration. Mr. Obama is aware of these secret meetings with lobbyists but so far hasn’t expressed any concern or disapproval.

Kennedy has been sitting at a table chatting with the corporate killers  responsible for the deaths of between 18,000 to 100,000 people every year because they lacked access to health care, and moreover, are the cause of the escalating health care crisis that leaves over 50 million without health insurance. Ted is joined at the table by another group: the American Cancer Society, Easter Seals, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Their presence at these clandestine gatherings is beyond shameful; it’s despicable.  They are supposed to represent patients and union members. How do they do it? How do they sit at the table and negotiate with an industry that has demonstrated for decades it cares only about profits and has made life for millions of people an agonizing, living hell? How many patients will they sacrifice and throw under the bus this time around in order to placate big PHRMA, AHIP, and employers and then tell us once again they have solved the health care crisis?

Did you notice who is missing from the table: the California Nurses Association (CNA), the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), and the grassroots, national organization Health Care Now! These groups want a single-payer, government financed health care system. Kennedy hasn’t invited these organizations to his top secret brainstorming sessions (by the way, they represent the views of the majority of people in this country) because single-payer is off his table.

The coward from Cape Cod is colluding once again with the same corporations to block single-payer, guaranteed health care for all. Mr. Kennedy has said many times that reforming the health care system has been “the cause of my life.” By any measure he has failed spectacularly. One statistic stands out: over 50 million Americans are uninsured in the richest country in the world. It didn’t have to be this way. Kennedy has been a senator for 46 years and sat on powerful committees. If he’d had the balls and the moxie to fight continuously and ruthlessly to pass the Kennedy-Griffiths bill this country wouldn’t be on the brink of a massive health care meltdown. His bill, proposed in 1971, would have created a comprehensive, national health insurance system and abolished the private insurance industry. Instead, Kennedy gave up and threw his support behind tepid, incremental reforms that allowed the parasitic insurance industry to thrive and have brought us to the point of disaster in 2009. He championed the draconian mandate model in his home state of Massachusetts that punishes people who don’t buy insurance and has enriched the already rich health insurance corporations. So sorry Ted, you sold out the cause of your life and the legacy you so arrogantly pursue now will reflect that.

An article in the New York Times speculated because Kennedy has a brain tumor, the covert meetings have an added sense of urgency. Oh really? Because he has a brain tumor?  Not the patients that according to a study in 2007 titled “Nobody Can Afford a Brain Tumor” face financial ruin? More than 90 percent of those surveyed had insurance. Ah, there’s the rub. Those patients had private insurance plans. AHIP tries to avoid covering cancer patients, they’re “high utilizers” of health care services (imagine that, wanting to receive treatment for cancer!) and that cuts into profit margins. Ted can afford a brain tumor because he has single-payer health care guaranteed for life, courtesy of the Federal government. Our tax dollars pay for his health care so he’ll never have to face medical bankruptcy.     

A memorandum by the group stated “While there is some diversity of views, the sense of the room is that an individual obligation to purchase insurance should be part of reform if that obligation is coupled with effective mechanisms to make coverage meaningful and affordable. The ideas discussed include a proposal to penalize people who fail to comply with the “individual obligation” to have insurance… There seems to be a sense in the room that some form of tax penalty is an effective means to enforce such an obligation, though only on those for whom affordable coverage is available.”  

The “sense in the room” is infuriating. It’s the failed Massachusetts Mandate Model enacted nationwide. That it’s failed doesn’t matter to Kennedy and Co. That the coverage isn’t meaningful or affordable and a study just published proves it, doesn’t matter to them either. The most important factor in the model is ideological. The provision of health care is an “individual obligation,” not the responsibility of the government, but rather a commodity to be bought and sold. The private insurance industry remains in the game. With the mandate model the government does have one responsibility: to shovel tax payer money into the coffers of the insurance industry to subsidize the poor souls that can’t afford coverage.  The insurance industry in Massachusetts loves the mandate because coercing millions of people to buy their expensive, stripped down plans and reaping millions in subsidies from the state for providing coverage for the poor is a win-win. The industry has indicated they’ll support a national insurance mandate and accept everyone regardless of preexisting conditions only if the government requires (re: forces) everyone to buy coverage, or pay a penalty. The “death eaters” want the entire population delivered into their clutches by government coercion in order to offset losses caused by actually providing health care to sick patients. Alissa Fox, a vice president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, explained it this way, “Insurance works best when everyone is in the pool. You need healthy people in the insurance pool to help pay for sicker individuals who are much more motivated to buy coverage.” Ms. Fox failed to mention it also “works best” to ensure super profits to that elite group of insurance company CEO’s and stockholders. Cleve Killingsworth, the CEO of BCBS in Massachusetts earned $3.6 million in 2007. The “everyone in the pool” is the insurance industry’s twisted version of the single-payer slogan  “Everybody In, Nobody Out.”

The penalty provision promotes the ideas that people don’t have health insurance because they’re too cheap, lazy, or don’t care about health coverage until they’re ill. All lies. The health insurance industry denies millions coverage by screening out those with health problems and disabilities, and charges exorbitant premiums for those they are willing to insure. In New York State the average premium per month for a single adult is $900 a month according to the State Insurance Department. If you have a preexisting condition, forget about it.

And only in America could the idea that people should be penalized for not buying a defective product become law. The mandate effectively criminalizes and punishes people that don’t comply. Punish, punish, punish patients, not the corporations that charge outrageous premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, invented the ass backwards notion of preexisting conditions, and routinely deny patients life-saving medical care.

What’s next, incarcerating those that don’t buy health insurance?   

There is a big lesson and a big wake-up call for the single-payer movement in this country.  The Leadership Conference For Guaranteed Healthcare, which is led by all the groups not invited to Ted’s table, has asked us to call Mr. Kennedy’s office for national call-in days and to write letters asking him to please support single-payer and to introduce John Conyers legislation titled the United States National Health Care Act, H. R. 676 into the Senate. Thousands of people across the country have heeded the call and contacted the senator and his staff on numerous occasions. It’s clear he’s not listening, the single-payer model is not welcome at his table, and he has no intention of supporting H.R. 676. Mr. Kennedy is an opponent of single-payer as is Mr. Obama. Period.

So we need a different strategy to get Kennedy and Obama’s attention. Health care activists in DC need to protest outside of these secret meetings and demand to be let in. Kennedy and Co. need to be confronted about the shocking lack of democracy and openness in the health care discussions that are taking place in Washington.

The chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program in Massachusetts just sent an open letter to Kennedy signed by 500 doctors explaining that a PNHP study shows unequivocally the mandate is not working and asking him to introduce H.R. 676 into the senate. PNHP will be lucky if Ted’s aides even show him the letter. Much better to have all the signatories show up to the next clandestine meeting and demand to be let in. It’s a travesty that the AMA is allowed a seat at Ted’s table and not PNHP. The majority of physicians now support PHNP’s single-payer position, not the AMA’s hybrid approach.

Massachusetts Labor For Health Care (it’s affiliated with Jobs With Justice) sent a letter signed by forty labor leaders to President Obama detailing the problems with the Massachusetts Mandate. They’ll be lucky if his aides even show him the letter. Much better to go to DC with PNHP and demand to be seated at Ted’s table. On March 19th this group of letter signers will deliver a copy of it to Kennedy’s office in Boston. Don’t just deliver it, in collaboration with Jobs With Justice and other single-payer activists, turn it into a picket and protest. It’s an insult to the labor movement that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is invited in and not the California Nurses Association or even one of the 481 unions or 118 Central State Labor Councils that support single-payer. 

Michael Moore, where are you? The single-payer movement needs you! Your powerful documentary Sicko unleashed a grassroots movement to fight for single-payer and to make health care a human right in this country. We need you back in DC to participate in hearings and press conferences, to out the politicians that refuse to sign on to H. R. 676, and to engage in the rabble rousing you are famous for. There has been a virtual media blackout on H. R. 676; you could help to get it into the national spotlight.   

And most importantly of all, the grassroots movement for single-payer has to recruit more people into the movement and engage in public protests that bring everyone together to fight. Letters and phone calls are not enough and are easily ignored. In addition, we have to collaborate with the labor movement, the housing as a human right movement, the immigrant rights movement, and other movements that are demanding change, because after all, health care is an issue that affects every single person. That is our power and our strength and is the only way to win single-payer.

HELEN REDMOND is a member of the Chicago Single-Payer Action Network and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She works in the emergency room at Cook County Hospital and blogs at http://helenredmond.wordpress.com  She can be reached at redmondmadrid@yahoo.com