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Bi-Partisan Bull on Health Care

As it hammers another nail into the coffin of meaningful health care reform, the Bipartisan Policy Center is laying it on thick. “Join Howard Baker, Tom Daschle and Bob Dole as they unveil their bipartisan plan for comprehensive health reform,” its web site crows, referring to a press conference that took place last week. There, the three former Senator majority leaders presented a proposal touted as “the culmination of an inclusive year-and-a-half effort that included strategic outreach to key health care stakeholders, a series of state-based public policy forums, and months of personal deliberations by the Leaders.”

Note the capital “L,” emphasizing the stature of the project’s distinguished figureheads. To drive home the momentous import of these men and their mission, the BPC is also running a video that has to be seen to be believed: Over a montage of Dorothea Lange-style black and white photos, it notes such national achievements as the eradication of child labor, polio, and racial segregation, before getting to the money shot: “Our party lines aren’t as important as what we can fix when we cross them,” the title card reads. “Let’s fix health care next.”

It’s all almost enough to make you forget that these three illustrious men are also well-paid corporate hacks, who have raked in funds from the private health care industry. And it might even distract a few people from the fact that the most noteworthy element of their celebrated “plan” is the complete absence of anything that might actually change the health care system in this country, including anything resembling a public option for health care coverage.

In the unlikely event that anyone thought Tom Daschle had an ounce of integrity running through his veins, this latest move ought to put that notion to rest. (We should all thank our lucky stars that the man is a tax evader, or he’d be our HHS secretary and “health czar,” and we’d be in even worse shape than we are now.) After the BPC plan was released last week, Daschle made his excuses:

While I feel very strongly that consumers should have the choice of a national, Medicare-like plan, my colleagues do not. . . But we were concerned that the ongoing health reform debate is beginning to show signs of fracture on the public plan issue, so in order to advance the process of developing bipartisan legislation and to move it forward, it’s time to find consensus here….We’ve come too far and gained too much momentum for our efforts to fail over disagreements on one single issue.

Never mind that the “single issue” is the only one that stood to make even a minor dent in the nation’s system of medicine-for-profit. The Obama administration, caught once again in the net of its own bipartisan rhetoric, duly praised the man who had just stabbed them in the back: “With this report, they have demonstrated what can be achieved with bipartisan effort,” said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. “The Bipartisan Policy Center has produced a significant report, and the White House applauds their efforts.”

As part of his earlier efforts to paint himself a reformer on this issue, Daschle wrote a book on the health care crisis called Critical. In the book, he supports some form of a public option to compete with private insurers, and also proposes a Federal Reserve-style “Federal Health Board.” “Like monetary policy,” he wrote, “health-care policy shouldn’t be subject to the whims of subcommittee chairmen and special interests.” How much better, instead, to have the special interests represented not by lowly “subcommittee chairmen,” but by a former Senate majority leader—or three.

And that’s just what’s happened here. All three of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s “Leaders” on health care reform have longstanding associations with law/lobbying firms that number health care companies among their clients. At least two of them have also profited by direct payments from the industry.

In Daschle and Dole’s case, the firm is Alston & Bird, which represents numerous health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, and nursing homes. Neither is a registered lobbyist, but that’s a fairly meaningless distinction in today’s Washington. Alston & Bird’s web site proudly advertises:

Our health care legislative and policy team has the significant advantage of including two former U.S. Senate majority leaders–Senators Bob Dole and Tom Daschle–both resident in our Washington office and champions of many health care issues in their Senate Finance Committee and leadership roles.

The site also brags of the firm’s “proven track record of achieving policy success, as well as protecting the interest of clients,” which include smoothing the progress of drug and medical device approvals, securing higher payment rates from Medicare, and “garner[ing] positive legislative changes”—in other words, changing laws to benefit the private companies it serves.

At the time of his failed nomination for HSS secretary, the New York Times reported that Daschle’s financial disclosures showed $2.1 million in earnings from Alston & Bird in the previous two years, as well “at least $220,000 for speeches to health care, pharmaceutical and insurance companies. He also received nearly $100,000 from health-related companies affected by federal regulation.”

Bob Dole had to work a little harder for his handouts from health care corporations. In 1999, Dole famously did a round of TV commercials confessing that Bob Dole had erectile dysfunction, and that Bob Dole encouraged other men in a similar predicament to consult with their doctors. The ads were framed like public service announcements, but Dole was paid an “undisclosed amount” by Pfizer, manufacturer of the billion-dollar boner pill Viagra.

In 2005, Dole was back on Pfizer’s payroll, promoting the new Medicare prescription drug plan, the government’s mammoth handout to insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Dole did a national “educational” speaking tour, funded by Pfizer, where he presented the “Ten Things Seniors Need to Know about Medicare’s New Prescription Drug Coverage.”

Howard Baker earned his money from the health care industry in somewhat more understated ways. His law firm, Baker Donelson, has defended HMOs, hospitals, and physicians practice management companies against litigation of various kinds, and also helps them fight unionization by health care workers. Until recently, one of the lobbyists working for Baker Donelson was Tom Daschle’s wife Linda, whose conflicts of interest are legion.

The Bipartisan Policy Center itself also has a network of ties to the health care industry, as detailed by Sam Stein on the Huffington Post. On its tax forms, the BPC identified drug manufacturer Schering-Plough as a “substantial contributor”; it is also one of 16 members of the organization’s “Leader’s Council.” The co-director of the BPC’s health care project is Chris Jennings, a former Clinton White House staffer whose company, Jennings Policy Strategies, “has earned millions of dollars in lobbying fees from companies with interests in the health care debate,” including several members of Big Pharma, Stein reports.

Asked about any “non-negotiable” elements in the health care reform proposal he helped draft for the BPC, Bob Dole said: “If you want to stop this thing dead in its tracks, or dead on arrival, in my view you put the public plan in it.”

And if you want to make sure the public plan dead is DOA, just put the likes of Dole, Daschle, and Baker on the case.

James Ridgeway and Jean Casella can be reached at The Unsilent Generation.

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