Spoiler alert: this is not a fawning, gushing, lie-filled eulogy of Saint Edward Kennedy. Read no further if you believe the “Liberal Lion” or as I prefer to call him, the “Lion King,” actually made this country a healthier, more equitable place to live in. You have been warned….
*Conflict of interest, almost full disclosure: I grew up in Massachusetts and spent several weeks each summer in Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod at my aunt’s house. There were yearly treks to Hyannis Port to pay respects to slain President John F. Kennedy and to gaze forlornly at his eternal flame. We gaped slack jawed though, at the massive, sprawling and luxurious “Kennedy compound” with stunning ocean views. I was taught to believe the Kennedy clan was royalty, a little piece of Camelot in the Yankee Bay State. Portraits of Kennedy family members were embossed on everything from mugs to rugs.
This is the anti-eulogy, the antidote to the reams of press coverage proclaiming Kennedy – the spawn and scion of one of America’s most wealthy and powerful families – to be the most effective, spectacular lawmaker in the history of the Senate, a man who worked on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. This latter characterization of Kennedy makes me crazy. He cared about the poor and oppressed when it was politically expedient and when pushed by events happening around him. And it was always about him, about advancing his career and individual and family notoriety for supposedly doing good deeds, of getting yet another piece of legislation or building named ‘Kennedy.’ In fact, Saint Edward knew very little of the lives of the oppressed and disenfranchised in America. He shuttled decade after decade between the secluded and secured, exclusive enclave of the Kennedy Compound in Massachusetts and the inner sanctums of the “Millionaires Club,” er, the United States Senate in Washington, DC. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Teddy was the seventh richest member of Congress weighing in at over $100,000 million.
Kennedy never worked to get anything: his career in politics was handed to him the old fashioned way, via family connections. Nepotism. Moreover, name recognition and the family fortune bought him a lifetime seat in the Senate that the Kennedy clan always believed was their personal property and birthright.
Much was made of the Lion King’s “unbridled appetites,” in particular for women and booze. That rich and powerful playboy men have numerous wives, girlfriends, mistresses, liaisons, and messy affairs is not surprising. Membership in the good ole’ boys club of rich and powerful men bestows that right. That Kennedy drank heavily for most of his life is not surprising, either. Think about it: when you are caught cheating at Harvard and are humiliated and expelled; when you’re dodging the draft and at a loss as to what to do with your pampered and privileged life and daddy gets you a cushy, do-nothing NATO job in Paris for a couple of years; when you feel inferior to your older, smarter brothers (one, of course, made it all the way to the highest office in the land) and then both are murdered, shot in cold blood; when one night you drive your car off a bridge into the sea and are responsible for your passenger drowning to death and you head home and go to sleep and the next day your first instinct is to call your closest political advisors; when a sister and nephew die in plane crashes; when you almost die in a plane crash, well, there are more than a few reasons to drink. Night after night, year after year Teddy had a lot of reasons to hit the bootleg scotch daddy trafficked in. I could almost forgive and forget Kennedy all those mistakes and tragedies because despite the silver spoon in his big Brahmin Boston brogue of a mouth, Teddy was curiously, stubbornly, human.
What I cannot ever forgive or ever forget is Kennedy’s record on health care. He called it “the cause of my life.” Even a cursory glance at the senator’s record shows he was a colossal failure at the cause of his life. How is it that the American mainstream media and even some left-wing media get away with promoting Kennedy as successful reformer of health care when the country is facing a health care crisis of staggering proportions? Two statistics speak volumes: 50 million uninsured and at least 20,000 people die every year due to lack of access to health care. If Kennedy was so committed to the plight of the uninsured and making health care accessible to everyone in the 46 years he was in the senate, why the hell is the health care crisis killing so many, swelling the ranks of the uninsured every day, and threatening to crash the economy? Here’s why: decades ago Kennedy sold out to the blood sucking, profit-hungry, killer insurance corporations.
It’s hard to believe looking back now, but the Lion King started out with the right idea. In1971, Kennedy, along with Representative Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.), supported the Health Security Act. It eliminated the role of the commercial insurers entirely and created a single-payer, government financed health care system. The Kennedy-Griffiths bill, as it came to be called, was a watershed in American politics and would have, if passed, made health care a human right and divorced health care from employment status for good. He had solid backing from the labor movement. Kennedy faced off against evil President Richard Nixon’s health care plan and charged that it “would provide the insurance industry with a windfall of billions of dollars annually.” Teddy was right.
Then between 1971 and 1974, Kennedy gave up, he completely abandoned single-payer, national health care and became the great compromiser. His next piece of health care legislation was the Mills-Kennedy Bill. It was the opposite of Kennedy-Griffiths. It maintained the link between employment and insurance, didn’t include the entire population and required those with coverage to shoulder much of the expense of basic medical care through high deductibles and co-pays. Labor refused to endorse the Mills-Kennedy bill and in a meeting with members of the Committee for National Health Insurance, Kennedy reportedly was furious and belligerent and said he resented the charge made against him that he was “selling out on the health issue.” Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and his organization Public Citizen Research Group also criticized Kennedy for selling out and caving to the insurance industry. But that’s exactly what Kennedy did and he never fought for single-payer health care again.
In 1979, Kennedy submitted to Congress the mistitled Health Care for All Americans Act, which became known as the Kennedy-Waxman bill. It was another rotten compromise that didn’t uproot the fundamental problems at the core of the health care system. It required employers to pay up to 65 percent of employee health insurance premiums. The legislation went nowhere and the number of uninsured increased.
Fast forward to 1993. Kennedy was an ardent supporter of the Clinton health care reform overhaul. Hillary Clinton organized a Health Care Task Force of powerful members of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. The health care reform proposal from members of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) was arrogantly dismissed. The meetings were conducted in secrecy and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, along with several other groups, filed a lawsuit against Clinton over the closed-door meetings. The bill that finally emerged was 1000 pages long, the complexity – stunning. It was a disaster: an enforced mandate for employers to provide health insurance to workers through health maintenance organizations (HMO’s.) It never passed, but the terrible era of HMO hegemony began.
The Kennedy-Kassebaum bill (1996) was another incremental attempt to stop the hemorrhaging in the employment-based system of health care provision. It was DOA – dead on arrival. Named the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), it was intended to narrow conditions under which insurers could refuse coverage. What finally passed was a watered-down bill that eliminated a few of the more egregious practices of the small group market. However, HIPAA didn’t stipulate that health insurance policies had to be offered at an affordable rate and it contained enough loopholes to allow insurers to avoid covering people with chronic and “expensive” health conditions. At the time of its passage, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) released a statement saying, “Although this doesn’t solve the nation’s problems with lack of insurance and under-insurance, this legislation does increase the security blanket for many who can already afford health coverage. Now, Congress and the president must turn their attention to extending affordable health insurance to the more than 40 million Americans who have no health coverage.” Gee Teddy, thanks for your life-long commitment to make quality health care a reality for all Americans.
The year 2006 was a double debacle and setback for fundamental health care reform. Kennedy heartily supported the draconian Massachusetts mandate that funneled millions of government subsidized dollars into insurance industry coffers and punished people that didn’t buy their defective product by stealing their tax refund. Three years later the Massachusetts mandate is unraveling as we knew it would. It never included undocumented immigrants, benefits for legal immigrants are being drastically cut, and over 200,000 people are still uninsured. Kennedy’s second miscast vote was in favor of the now widely acknowledged pharmaceutical industry give away, commonly known as Medicare Part D. Besides being inordinately complex, the legislation forbids the federal government from negotiating drug prices. Kennedy sided with the drug company vampires in bamboozling and ripping off millions of seniors.
With Obama’s election, Senator Kennedy, by now the all-time health care legislation loser, again went to work on health care reform, but this time with an incurable brain tumor growing in his head. President Obama promised transparency and all views would be heard in the health care debate. Saint Edward, accountable to no one, held secret, closed door meetings with the same cast of crooked corporate characters responsible for the health care crisis. Perched at “Ted’s table” were lobbyists from America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), big PhRMA, and the Business Roundtable. Single-payer activists didn’t find out about the clandestine meetings until the New York Times ran a front page article exposing them and were rightfully outraged at being shut out once again. Kennedy’s proposal to reform health care this last time around: the Massachusetts Mandate grafted onto the entire country.
The more things changed, the more Kennedy stayed the same. He never heeded his oft quoted, unoriginal and hokey one liner, “Sometimes a party must sail against the wind.” He sailed with the entrenched, profit-gouging, corporate, hurricane force winds that control health care, inflict, and are responsible for unspeakable suffering and death. Kennedy bears responsibility, too, and has the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands. Because it could have turned out very differently. If Kennedy hadn’t given up the fight for the National Health Act in 1971 the United States wouldn’t be mired in a massive health care meltdown today. Kennedy was especially well positioned to take on the powerful insurance industry and pass legislation that evicted them from health care and created a government financed health program. He was independently wealthy and didn’t need corporate campaign donations to fund his reelection campaigns. He had the power and prestige of the Kennedy name, the connections and tons of money to keep up the fight for as long as it took. Remember, he served in the senate for 46 years! If the liberal lion had shown any courage or had any balls (lions have big balls, but perhaps not if they’re liberals) and actually stuck to the uncompromising principle that health care is a human right for all, not a commodity, he could have claimed a well deserved and genuine legacy as a champion of health care reform, he could have gone down in history as the Aneurin Bevan of American health care. But he didn’t, so he can’t.
An astute politician summed up Kennedy’s career this way: “Usually at the end of the day, he [Kennedy] would make a compromise that his most loyal fans would be disappointed with. ‘Oh, you’ve given up too much, Teddy’ – but he would know how much you needed to give up to pass the bill…”
This article was written in memory of Marilyn Clement and Nick Skala. Marilyn was the national coordinator for Health Care Now! and Nick was a senior research associate at Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP.) Both were fierce advocates for single-payer and never sold out.