BUSINESS AS USUAL—the “Changeman” didn’t cometh—
Despite solid support for radical reform, and to the detriment of millions, Obama puts private insurers and Big Pharma above the public interest
Dateline: 8 June 2009 | TOP PRIORITY
And be sure to read our BONUS FEATURE on the same topic, penned by Glen Ford, America’s most distinguished Black journalist (see bottom of this article)
President Obama’s Saturday address initiated the public phase of his administration’s effort to pass major healthcare legislation. His remarks were notable for the absence of any reference to the actual crisis facing tens of millions of working people in the United States: more than 47 million people are living without health insurance, and millions more are underinsured and face crippling bills and even bankruptcy in the event of a serious illness.
Instead, Obama focused entirely on the rising cost of healthcare, which he presented as a major problem both for the federal government, the largest single payer of healthcare bills, and for corporate America. He declared, “The soaring costs of health care make our current course unsustainable” and pledged to heed concerns “that the ballooning costs of Medicare and Medicaid could lead to fiscal catastrophe down the road.” In other words, the administration is concerned, not about improving healthcare services for the American people, but about cutting costs in order to improve the financial health of American capitalism.
His remarks were notable for the absence of any reference to the actual crisis facing tens of millions of working people in the United States: more than 47 million people are living without health insurance…
The Obama administration has already ruled out the only rational response to the crisis of healthcare availability: the establishment of a single-payer system in which the federal government would guarantee universal access to healthcare as a matter of right. Every other advanced industrialized country has some form of universal coverage. But such a system would eliminate the tens of billions raked in by insurance companies whose “business model” requires that they limit coverage, deny treatment or reject bills—in other words, it would infringe on the “right” of MetLife, Aetna, CIGNA and other giant corporations to make a profit from illness and disease.
The abortive healthcare reform plans of the last Democratic administration, headed by Bill Clinton, collapsed ignominiously in 1993-94 in the face of intransigent opposition from the insurance companies, drug companies and for-profit hospital chains. Obama boasted in his Saturday address that he had made progress in wooing the opponents of healthcare reform to join instead of oppose him.
Geri Jenkins, RN, co-president of the 86,000-member California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, and a practicing RN at the University of California San Diego Medical Center, is expected to describe how the nation’s healthcare meltdown is a “patient care crisis” and how single-payer reform best meets the needs of the nation. Given the plutocratic shills we have in the White House and Congress, she will be politely listened to, and dismissed.
“Unlike past attempts at reforming our health care system, everyone is at the table—patient’s advocates and health insurers, business and labor, Democrats and Republicans alike,” he said. By now the rhetoric from the White House is familiar, even predictable. Take any critical and highly charged political issue, acknowledge the opposing factions involved, and announce that your goal is to “resolve the differences.” But in the case of healthcare, there is an intrinsic conflict between the right of the people to enjoy the benefits of modern medicine and the profits of the capitalists who control the insurance industry, the manufacture of drugs and medical equipment, and the operation of for-profit hospitals and nursing homes. Obama has come down decisively on the side of these giant corporations.
There is no difficulty, intellectually or technically, in devising a rational healthcare system. Advances in science and technology make it possible to deliver adequate healthcare services to the entire population at a fraction of the current cost. Every person should have access to healthcare as a basic right and be able to choose their own doctor and receive treatment at a modern, clean, well-run facility, run as a public utility either at no cost to patients at all, or with a modest fee. Medical bills should be relegated to the museum of antiquities, along with the saws used to conduct surgery without anesthesia.
But such a system would require putting an end to the private, profit-making medical industry, one of the most lucrative sources of wealth for the financial aristocracy that rules America. The pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies, the insurance industry, and the hospital and nursing home chains would be nationalized and operated under democratic control as a public service—a transformation that the vast majority of the American people would applaud.
Doctors would become well-paid salaried employees, like airplane pilots or nuclear physicists, not businessmen/owners concerned with profit maximization—a transformation that physicians genuinely concerned with patient welfare would welcome. Instead of a medical system driven by the dictates of insurance companies and HMO “gatekeepers,” medical decisions would be made by healthcare professionals based on the welfare of their patients.
Socialized medicine would be nothing but beneficial for small businessmen as well, since it would relieve them of an employee benefit cost that puts them at the mercy of rate hikes demanded by insurance companies. Small proprietors and self-employed professionals would have the same access to the healthcare system as all other working people, unlike the present system where they frequently go without coverage or pay prohibitive individual rates.
Despite the fevered rhetoric of the ultra-right, the Obama administration’s plans have nothing in common with such a restructuring of the healthcare system along socialist lines. On the contrary, Obama has repeatedly sought to reassure the profiteers that their interests will be looked after and that they are better off at the table, working with him, than outside. The for-profit healthcare and insurance firms have taken up this offer with enthusiasm.
A major reason for the changed posture of the corporations is the financial crisis sweeping world capitalism. They see Obama’s healthcare “reform” as an opportunity to join the banks and speculators in raiding the federal treasury. These concerns are evident in the plans being drafted at the White House and by congressional committees.
One key provision is a mandate that every American buy health insurance coverage, similar to the requirement that automobile drivers purchase liability insurance. This will produce a guaranteed market of tens of millions of new insurance customers for the private companies, with the federal government helping low-income purchasers—in effect, providing a mammoth federal subsidy to the insurance companies. The number of people buying private health insurance has declined by 9 million since 2000 because of soaring premiums, deteriorating real incomes and employer cutbacks in benefits. This decline will accelerate as baby boomers become eligible for Medicare beginning in 2011 and leave the private market.
The “debate” between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress involves little more than the terms on which hundreds of billions in treasury dollars will be turned over to the healthcare profiteers. The Obama administration wants to offer a public option as an alternative or supplement to private insurance, in the name of promoting competition and “keeping the insurance companies honest.”
The Republicans, and a sizeable number of right-wing Democrats, oppose any public option—largely for ideological reasons, since they fear the establishment of any form of public health insurance, no matter how inadequate, will lead to demands for a fully public healthcare system. One consulting firm recently estimated that 119 million of the 172 million now privately insured would switch to a public health plan that paid Medicare rates and charged premiums accordingly.
An analysis in the New York Times Sunday noted “the fears of private insurers that they would not be able to compete with a Medicare-like option and might gradually be priced out of existence,” and cited the arguments of right-wing critics of Obama “that with low administrative costs and no need to produce profits, a public plan will start with an unfair pricing advantage.”
One could hardly state the advantages of a fully state-run healthcare system more succinctly. A system with “low administrative costs and no need to produce profits” might be regarded as “unfair” by the healthcare profiteers, but it is the only way to meet the needs of working people to healthcare that is decent, affordable, and available to all as a basic human right.
Patrick Martin is a senior editor with the World Socialist Web Site
Obama Charges Backward On Health Care
By Glen Ford
Created 06/10/2009 – 07:07
By BAR executive editor Glen Ford
Barack Obama, like the little kids that used to appear on Art Linkletter’s TV show, says “the darndest things.” He has discovered that the “root cause” of America’s health care cost problem isn’t the insurance companies, or the drug barons, or the hospital corporations. Medicare is the villain. “Disastrously, he has created a situation in which health care ‘reform’ is predicated on stripping Medicare down to the bone.”
“Obama called on Congress to squeeze half a trillion dollars over the next ten years out of Medicare.”
President Obama this past weekend made a big to-do about taking charge in the health care debate. His phrase-mongers were busy at their specialty: shaping air for their boss to blow without hurting anyone powerful. “Simply put, the status quo is broken,” said Obama  on Saturday. “We cannot continue this way. If we do nothing, everyone’s healthcare will be put in jeopardy.”
The problem is, status quos are usually arrangements that serve the purposes of those in power, and do not break by themselves. Breaking the status quo requires doing battle with entrenched interests. One cannot cajole, lie or primp one’s way out. There is one exit, and that is through struggle.
“We must attack the root causes of skyrocketing health costs,” the president told his radio audience, correctly. But of course, fighting the powers-that-be in health care – the corporations whose quest for mega-profits is the “root cause” of wildly overpriced and criminally ill-distributed health services in the United States – has never been on Obama’s agenda. Instead, like a McCarthyite searching for communists under the bed, the president pointed a long finger at the imagined culprit: Medicare. Obama then called on Congress to squeeze half a trillion dollars over the next ten years out of Medicare, whose overhead is a fraction of the for-profit health sector.
Obama succeeds only in further alarming what’s left of the Left in his party – a sport of his, that no doubt makes him feel courageous. Disastrously, he has created a situation in which health care “reform” is predicated on stripping Medicare down to the bone. That’s a game the Right would love to play, and Obama has given them the invitation.
“Obama, himself, is a principle impediment to real discussion of health care.”
He has given progressives nothing but the finger – and some lefties are finally gathering up enough self-respect to get angry about it. They have come to the realization that Obama, himself, is a principle impediment to real discussion of health care. In crudely freezing single payer advocates out of White House mediated realms of discussion, he has drastically thinned the ranks of serious potential allies in any future throwdown with the corporations. One can only conclude that Obama and his advisors are either bad strategic planners, or that they never intended to confront Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and Big Hospitals in any serious manner.
My own belief is that Obama and his circle understood that any winning Democrat would be required to seem to embrace something that sounded like “universal” health care. A master of ambiguity, Obama convinced those who were not listening closely that he is, at heart, a reformer – whatever that is. Yet even before winning the general election, Obama prepared to govern, as the New York Times noted, from the “center-right” of his party – through Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) operatives like his chief of staff, Rahm Enamuel, Blue Dogs, Wall Street’s many servants on Capitol Hill, and Republicans. It has been quite clear for some time (and crystal clear in hindsight) that Obama’s general legislative and public relations strategy was to silence and neutralize the Democratic Party’s Left. This was thought to be necessary in order to prepare the pubic for some grand proclamation by Obama on his forging of a national consensus – a coming together of business and labor, rich and poor, all regions and sectors, in time of crisis. That’s his kind of music.
When that didn’t happen in the health care arena, Obama’s people simply invented a “consensus” and political “breakthrough” that never occurred. In what we described as “Obama’s Health Care Charade” (BAR, May 13, ’09 ), the White House in May proclaimed that industry leaders had “agreed” to save the public $2 trillion over the next ten years, out of the goodness of their hearts. Of course, this was nonsense on the face of it, and corporate executives found themselves compelled to announce they had made no such promise.
“Obama’s general legislative and public relations strategy was to silence and neutralize the Democratic Party’s Left.”
Obama will play tricks on his friends in the boardrooms in hopes of making them appear more public-spirited than he knows them to be, but he will never challenge their power, which he sees as legitimate and benign (the “genius of capitalism”). The social peace he seeks, therefore, must come at the expense of those who would upset the status quo: chiefly, Blacks and progressives.
However, the real world intrudes on Obama’s political theater. He was so busy putting single payer Democrats in quarantine, he allowed the so-called “centrists” to make their own deals with the health care industry. For example, Montana Sen. Baucus, whose Finance Committee followed Obama’s lead in banning single payer supporters from testifying at its “hearings,” is vowing to come up with a bill weak enough to draw substantial Republican support. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s plan would expand Medicare , the program Obama wants to scapegoat. New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer swears that he will not allow a national plan that would undercut private insurance companies.
The big secret is that Barack Obama doesn’t have a health care plan, just a bunch of vague statements. In this regard, he is truly the hollow man. Every corporate interest in Washington now has the opportunity to write their profits into the legislation that finally emerges.
The 80-strong Congressional Progressive Caucus  and the 41-member Congressional Black Caucus both endorsed a national health care plan along the lines of Medicare for all . The two caucuses heavily overlap, and strong majorities favor single payer. In a more sensible world, progressives on The Hill would have made their presence felt much earlier, before the obituaries had been written on single payer. At the vortex of the confusion is Obama, both the actual corporate politician and the imagined ally. With smoke, mirrors, and duplicity, he has spread confusion among the enemy – which as far as he’s concerned, is us.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com .