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Single-Payer is Inevitable

“The new health care legislation is a step toward elimination, by slow strangulation, of private health insurance and establishment of government as the ‘single payer.’”

– George Will, in his weekly newspaper column, Sunday July 11, 2010

Everyone loves to pick on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and well they should. This 2,000+ page contraption, this heap of handouts to the special interest lobbyists with a few shiny baubles thrown in to placate the common folk, was not only written by the for-profit health insurance industry but now will be implemented by former WellPoint/Anthem Vice President Liz Fowler who actually penned much of the law in her role as Max Baucus’ chief healthcare counsel for the Senate Finance Committee. You don’t have to make this stuff up, as Sam Stein reported in the Huffington Post July 16, titled “Obama Administration Defends Hiring Of Ex-Health Insurance Exec To Oversee Reform”

But what about George Will’s fine whine that the insurance industry faces strangling regulation? Robert Pear wrote in the New York Times on August 2 that the new law will lead to more regulation of the industry, and “the transition is full of risks and uncertainty for all involved.” If the Obama administration is going to “regulate the industry for the benefit of consumers,” he noted, then “they can’t help but destabilize or disrupt the existing market.”

Wall Street doesn’t like uncertainty. It detests being destabilized. Stock analysts are not missing out on this. The brokerage firm Edward Jones “downgraded the ratings on the stocks of the three health insurers it covers – UnitedHealth Group, WellPoint and Aetna — to ‘sell’ from ‘hold’ late on Friday [7/30]. Those companies are the three largest U.S. health insurers.” (Reuters 8/2/10)

This new blow comes after legendary investor Warren Buffett pulled the plug on WellPoint, selling all Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings in the insurance giant during the first quarter of 2010 (“Buffett bails on WellPoint)

Speaking in Virginia, former House Speaker and presumed presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said on May 14, “The employer-based system will collapse because [the ACA] encourages businesses to drop health care coverage and incur the fine. When employees realize the high costs of the health care exchanges, they will demand a nationalized health care system,” according to the Washington Post.

It only gets worse, or better, depending on your perspective. According to Gingrich, the business community is going to lead the call for single payer Medicare for All.

And well they should. Gingrich wasn’t making this up. On May 6, CNN Money released documents showing that “many large companies are examining a course that was heretofore unthinkable, dumping the health care coverage they provide to their workers in exchange for paying penalty fees to the government… AT&T revealed that it spends $2.4 billion a year on coverage for its almost 300,000 active employees, a number that would fall to $600 million if AT&T stopped providing health care coverage and paid the penalty option.”

Is the Affordable Care Act unaffordable? Isn’t it at least a step in the right direction?

Those questions can only be answered by considering whether the ACA ends up strengthening or weakening the health insurance corporations. Progressive critics of the bill point out that the new legislation hands over $350 billion in government subsidies to the private insurers while mandating consumers to buy the industry’s shoddy products. That, combined with a lack of price controls means the ACA could prove to be a bonanza for the corporate stakeholders in the medical-industrial complex.

On the other hand, the changing marketplace is full of perils, even if the conservative icons quoted above are exaggerating them to stir up fear of Socialized Medicine (and maybe scare up some donations).

If we stand back and rest on our laurels, believing that the ACA will save us, then we are doomed. The industry lobbyists are working overtime to take the best parts of the bill and weaken them, while destroying any good that is in the bill (see Wendell Potter in the Huffington Post on July 27, Health Insurers Leaning on State Insurance Commissioners to “Reform” Reform).

“We believe that Medicare for All is inevitable in the United States. It is up to all of us to determine when the inevitable becomes the reality.”

– Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), John Conyers (D-Mich.), and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), statement for Medicare’s birthday, July 29, 2010

If you’re not inclined to believe George and Newt, then how about Dennis, John, and Bernie: “It is up to all of us to determine when the inevitable becomes the reality.”

The reality is that single payer, Medicare for All, is not inevitable, nor is there any guarantee the ACA won’t bankrupt us while enriching the corporations that lobbied for it.

It reminds me of a slogan we have in Indiana, “Healthcare Reform: We’re Still For It, and We’re Not Done Yet!”

From California to Vermont, Medicare for All advocates are working for bills to create state single payer systems. The grassroots are pushing up thru the disappointment of the Affordable Care Act.

Nationally, with the growing recognition that the health insurance giants stand as the greatest barrier to affordable healthcare for all, investors are beginning to see that this is not an industry socially responsible stockholders should be in (Huffington Post May 12, Napalm, Big Health Insurance, and Divestment).

I went to medical school to take care of sick people. The insurance companies fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to their investors by finding ways not to pay for the care of the sick. All their innovation and creativity go to this goal of not paying for care. No other sector in our crazy healthcare system operates under this incentive.

It will take a mass movement, like those for women’s suffrage and civil rights. It will take a divestment campaign like the one against apartheid in South Africa. We must keep the pressure up, shine a light on their nefarious deeds, drive down their stock prices, and expose them for what they are: parasitic middlemen who add no value while sucking billions out of our economy.

ROB STONE, MD is an emergency physician and Director of Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan in Indiana. He is on the board of directors of Physicians for a National Health Plan.

 

 

 

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