Democratic Leaders Have Blocked Real Healthcare Reform for Decades. Time to Give ‘Em Hell.

In 1948, Harry Truman pushed for a national nonprofit health insurance program in his successful, come-from-behind presidential campaign. When Truman’s plan was denounced as “socialized medicine” and “un-American” by the powerful American Medical Association, “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” stood his ground, defending his proposal as “simple Christianity.”

In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson secured passage of Medicare (and Medicaid), he traveled to Missouri to formally sign it into law in Truman’s presence – declaring that “the real daddy of Medicare” was Truman. Medicare was federal health insurance for those 65 and older, but proponents hoped it was step one on the way to Medicare for all.

In the 1970s, it remained the Democratic Party’s official position to support a federally-provided health insurance program for all (“single payer”) – and its strongest advocate was the chair of the Senate Health subcommittee, Ted Kennedy. Supported by unions and seniors, Kennedy introduced a Medicare for all proposal in 1971: the “Health Security Act.” Worried about the plan’s popularity, President Nixon countered with a supposed reform that would preserve for-profit, private insurance: the “Health Insurance Partnership Act.” Kennedy declared, “It’s really a partnership between the administration and insurance companies. It’s not a partnership between patients and doctors of this nation.”

In 1976, Jimmy Carter promised a national health insurance plan in his victorious campaign for the presidency. Kennedy later called it a “missing promise” – and their discord over healthcare continued through Kennedy’s failed challenge of Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

As harsh neoliberal capitalism dawned in the Reagan ‘80s there was a sea change in the country and within the Democratic Party. Democratic leaders – calling themselves “New Democrats” – scarcely even pretended to resist greedy corporate interests. Those interests were invited into the party and into policy formulation.

Enter Bill Clinton.

By the 1990s, as day-to-day healthcare decision-making shifted from patients and their doctors to insurers and for-profit corporations, many physicians had joined the call for all Americans to get their insurance from a single federal plan.

But none of these physicians were invited to the table as the Clinton administration developed its “healthcare reform” policy under the leadership of first lady Hillary Clinton. The policy was largely created by corporate healthcare lobbyists and lawyers known as the Jackson Hole Study Group. The February 28, 1993 New York Times had a photo of the group beneath this headline: “Hillary Clinton’s Potent Brain Trust On Health Reform.”

In 1993, a Mother Jones writer accurately described the impossible task Hillary Clinton had been handed by the White House: Build a better, leaner, cheaper mousetrap (healthcare system) — but include a player piano (private insurance industry) in the middle of your contraption.

The goal of the Jackson Hole group was to devise a “reform” that kept the healthcare system in the hands of for-profit corporations. The plan that was ultimately developed – called “Managed Competition” – was so bureaucratic and complicated that the Clintons’ 1,342 page bill never got off the ground.

At the time, Norman Solomon and I were the only nationally-syndicated columnists critically examining the corporate greed and elite policy-making that was dooming “healthcare reform.” In onecolumn, we wrote: “The imprint of the insurance industry is all over the managed competition idea. The Jackson Hole study group that originated the scheme is made up of big insurance companies like Prudential, Metropolitan Life, Aetna and Cigna, plus hospital and pharmaceutical interests.”

We cited an article in which “Jackson Hole leaders bluntly argued that managed competition is the only way to avert a government takeover of ‘health care financing’ and the ‘elimination of a multiple-payer private insurance industry.’”

We complained that the Clinton administration and mainstream media were sidelining a nonprofit single-payer insurance bill “endorsed by 95 members of Congress – plus groups like Consumers Union and Public Citizen.” At the same time the Clinton bill went nowhere, the White House made sure that real reform – a streamlined plan not devised by Aetna, Cigna or Big Pharma – never got voted on.

What was true in 1993 is true today: Health insurance companies do not heal anyone. All they contribute to healthcare is excess bureaucracy for medical professionals, devious advertising, sales commissions – plus exorbitant profits ($10 billion in one quarter last year for the Big 8 insurers) and lavish executive salaries. Compensation for healthcare CEOs averaged $18 million in 2018.

Single payer doesn’t just cut costs by eliminating the waste caused by a multiplicity of for-profit insurers – but also because the purchasing power of a federal plan can rein in pharmaceutical and other exploding costs.

Jump forward from the Clinton to the Obama years, and we saw a similar dynamic from Democratic leaders. Powerful healthcare lobbyists made sure that cost-effective Medicare for All would not even be considered, while these same lobbyists were at the table helping to devise “reform.” Who was at the table explains why giant insurance and pharma companies have been so enriched in the last decade.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a good thing that people with pre-existing conditions could get coverage under Obamacare (although too expensive) and that Medicaid was expanded (in the states where the GOP didn’t block it).  It’s not a good thing that roughly 30 million people were left without health insurance BEFORE the jobless crisis caused by Covid-19, and that millions more were under-insured. And not a good thing that healthcare costs were hardly contained.

History teaches a clear lesson: The fact that our nation is the only advanced industrial country without universal healthcare cannot be blamed on Republican obstruction alone. It was also caused by Democratic leaders who’ve spent decades catering to corporate interests (while collecting their campaign donations) – and refusing to fight for universal coverage.

This history of Democratic obstruction and vacillation is why hundreds of elected delegates to next month’s Democratic convention have put their foot down. They’ve signed a petition pledging to vote down the party platform if it “does not include a plank supporting universal, single-payer Medicare for All.” The petition’s initiator is Judith Whitmer, chair of the convention’s Nevada delegation. She told Politico: “This pandemic has shown us that our private health insurance system does not work for the American people. Millions of people have lost their jobs and their healthcare at the same time.”

By demanding of the party leadership what Harry Truman called for 72 years ago, Whitmer and other Democratic activists are indeed “giving ‘em hell.”

More articles by:

Jeff Cohen was director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and cofounder of the online activism group RootsAction.org.

August 11, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy
Paul Street
Defund Fascism, Blue and Orange
Richard C. Gross
Americans Scorned
Andrew Levine
Trump and Biden, Two Ignoble Minds Here O’erthrown
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Nationalism Has Led to the Increased Repression of Minorities
Sonali Kolhatkar
Trump’s Presidency is a Death Cult
Colin Todhunter
Pushing GMO Crops into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success
Valerie Croft
How Indigenous Peoples are Using Ancestral Organizing Practices to Fight Mining Corporations and Covid-19
David Rovics
Tear Gas Ted Has a Tantrum in Portland
Dean Baker
There is No Evidence That Generous Unemployment Benefits are Making It Difficult to Find Workers
Robert Fantina
War on Truth: How Kashmir Struggles for Freedom of Press
Dave Lindorff
Trump Launches Attack on Social Security and Medicare
Elizabeth Schmidt
COVID-19 Poses a Huge Threat to Stability in Africa
Parth M.N.
Coping With a Deadly Virus, a Social One, Too
Thomas Knapp
The “Election Interference” Fearmongers Think You’re Stupid
Binoy Kampmark
Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under
Alex Lawson
34 Attorneys General Call to Bust Gilead’s Pharma Monopoly on COVID Treatment Remdesivir
August 10, 2020
Gerald Sussman
Biden’s Ukrainegate Problem
Vijay Prashad – Érika Ortega Sanoja
How the U.S. Failed at Its Foreign Policy Toward Venezuela
Daniel Warner
Geneva: The Home of Lost Causes
Mike Hastie
The Police Force Stampede in Portland on August 8, 2020 
Jack Rasmus
Trump’s Executive Orders: EOs as PR and FUs
Rev. William Alberts
Cognitive Without Conscience
David Altheide
Politicizing Fear Through the News Media
F. Douglas Stephenson
Is Big Pharma More Interested in Profiteering Than Protecting Us From Coronavirus?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Money Plague
Howard Lisnoff
Revolutionaries Living in a System of Growing Fascism
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump is Defeating Himself
Lynnette Grey Bull
The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Human Rights Emergency is Not a Photo-Op for Ivanka Trump
Victor Grossman
Some Come, Others Go
Binoy Kampmark
Death From the Sky: Hiroshima and Normalised Atrocities
The Stop Golden Rice Network
Why We Oppose Golden Rice
Michael D. Knox
After Nagasaki, the U.S. Did Not Choose Peace
Elliot Sperber
A Tomos 
Weekend Edition
August 07, 2020
Friday - Sunday
John Davis
The COVID Interregnum
Louis Yako
20 Postcard Notes From Iraq: With Love in the Age of COVID-19
Patrick Cockburn
War and Pandemic Journalism: the Truth Can Disappear Fast
Eve Ottenberg
Fixing the COVID Numbers
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Every Which Way to Lose
Paul Street
Trump is Not Conceding: This is Happening Here
Robert Hunziker
The World on Fire
Rob Urie
Neoliberal Centrists and the American Left
John Laforge
USAF Vet Could Face ‘20 Days for 20 Bombs’ for Protest Against US H-Bombs Stationed in Germany
Andrew Levine
Clyburn’s Complaint
Kavaljit Singh
Revisiting the Idea of Pigou Wealth Tax in the Time of Covid-19