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Why Can’t We All Get KennedyCare?

Last month , Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. All the major news outlets provided daily updates on Kennedy’s medical treatment and prognosis.

The media failed to point out an important fact: Unlike average Americans, the senator from Massachusetts didn’t have to worry for one minute that he wouldn’t get the care he needed for his life-threatening cancer.

The president, vice president and members of Congress all enjoy government-financed health care, with few restrictions or prohibitive out-of-pocket co-pays. They are never turned away for pre-existing conditions or denied care for what insurance companies label “experimental treatments” (like the brain surgery Kennedy just underwent).

No, from the moment he had a seizure at his home on Cape Cod and was flown to Boston (an ambulance would have taken too long), until his surgery early this week, he got what the California Nurses Association (CNA) has dubbed “CheneyCare”–named in honor of the vice president with a chronic heart condition, for whom no health care expense is too great.

Kennedy and his family didn’t have to spend hours on the phone fighting to get pre-authorization to see a neurosurgeon, and he didn’t wait months for an appointment. Within a week, he had a meeting with a group of top-flight neurosurgeons from the country’s leading medical institutions to discuss all his options and select a surgeon.

Kennedy didn’t have to argue with his insurer to get all those second opinions. And he wasn’t told by an insurance company bureaucrat that the surgery wasn’t “medically necessary” on the basis that the prognosis for a man his age with a malignant glioma in the parietal lobe is bleak at best.

Kennedy elected to have surgery at the Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina. He lives in Massachusetts, of course, but it wasn’t a problem that the surgery took place in another state–apparently the doctors and hospital aren’t “out of network.”

He won’t be sent a bill for the surgery and hospitalization. And, of course, Kennedy will never have to declare bankruptcy due to medical debt.

THE SENATOR from Massachusetts has staked his legislative career on reforming the health care system. By any measure, he and all the other politicians in Washington have failed abysmally.

Two statistics speak volumes about the scale of the health care crisis in the U.S. today: 50 million people in the United States have no health insurance, and at least 18,000 die every year due to lack of access to health care.

In 1971, Kennedy was actually in favor of a national, single-payer health care system. In opposition to President Richard Nixon’s support for a mandate requiring employers to purchase private insurance for employees, Kennedy, along with Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.), proposed the Health Security Act.

The legislation aimed to eliminate the role of commercial insurers and provide everyone with comprehensive medical benefits, financing the program out of a payroll tax and the government’s general revenues.

Kennedy railed against Nixon’s mandates, saying this would provide the insurance industry with “a windfall of billions of dollars annually.” How ironic then that Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts was the first to pass a mandate model for extending health care coverage–with Kennedy a chief supporter of then Gov. Mitt Romney’s program.

The mandates are a failure. There are still over 600,000 uninsured in Massachusetts. All Massachusetts residents are required to have insurance, and for many not covered by their employer or under programs for the poor, that means buying policies. The lowest-cost plan offered to a couple in their 50s is $8,200 annually, with a $2,000 per person deductible.

The insurance industry loves the Massachusetts mandate. In the words that Kennedy uttered decades ago, it’s “a windfall of billions of dollars annually.”

Back in the 1970s, Kennedy abandoned the Health Security Act, saying it wasn’t “politically feasible.” In reality, he wasn’t willing to take on the medical-industrial complex.

Kennedy became known as the master of the “across-the-aisle compromise.” But these compromises, while maintaining the power and profits of the private insurance industry, didn’t lower the cost of health care or increase the percentage of people with insurance.

In 1974, he proposed the Mills-Kennedy Bill, a capitulation to the private insurance industry that preserved their role and the link between employment and health insurance. The Committee for National Health Insurance, founded by the United Auto Workers union, broke with Kennedy over this betrayal, charging him with “selling out on the health issue.” In 1978, Kennedy sold out again by advocating an employer mandate that continued to allow commercial insurers a central role, but with greater federal regulation.

Kennedy is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. Not surprisingly, he is one of the top recipients of health-care industry political contributions. During his 40 years in Congress, he has accepted millions from insurance and pharmaceutical political action committees, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Perhaps this explains why he has refused to co-sponsor Rep. John Conyers HR 676, legislation that would create a single-payer, government-financed health care system.

For politicians like Kennedy, there will never be a time when single-payer, government-financed health care is politically feasible, viable or attainable.

Instead, they will echo the words of Barack Obama–another former supporter of single payer and current recipient of big bucks from the health sector. Obama argues that if he was starting from scratch, he would be in favor of single-payer, but now, we have to build on the broken system we have.

A government-financed health care system for everyone just won’t work–except for them.

HELEN REDMOND is a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago and a contributor to the Socialist Worker.

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Helen Redmond is an independent journalist and writes about the war on drugs and health care. She can be reached at redmondmadrid@yahoo.com

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