President Obama and the Democratic leadership say they are serious about enacting health care reform this year, but if the current behavior of some leading Senate Democrats is any indication, we are headed for the weakest kind of change. Some of these senators seem more concerned about protecting the private health insurance industry than in creating a system that does the most to help the uninsured and the underinsured.
Having ruled out the best heath reform of all—the creation of a single payer or Medicare for All plan—the Democrats have been pushing a hybrid system in which everyone who does not already have coverage would be required to purchase it from either a private insurer (with subsidies for those with low income) or a new federal plan. The insurance industry is squawking about that public alternative, saying it would create unfair competition for their offerings.
That’s would you would expect to hear from an industry that wants to hold its long-suffering clients hostage, realizing that if people had the choice of a quality affordable public plan they would abandon the likes of UnitedHealth and Humana in a heartbeat.
What’s amazing is to read in the New York Times that supposedly liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York is proposing to placate the insurers by creating a “level playing field” between the public and private plans. That would mean adhering to “principles” such as the following:
- The public plan should be self-sustaining, meaning that it would pay all claims from premiums and co-payments.
- The public plan should pay doctors and hospitals more than the discounted rates now provided by Medicare; and
- The government should not compel doctors and hospitals to participate in the public plan just because they participate in Medicare.
Is Schumer out of his mind? His proposals would saddle a social insurance program with the drawbacks of a for-profit carrier.
Why stop with those few principles? To make it really fair, Schumer should insist that the public plan spend the same large sums on wasteful administrative costs as the private insurers and be equally ruthless about denying coverage whenever possible. He should also demand that the public plan set its rates high enough to allow lavish compensation packages for its top officials and generate surpluses equal to the billions in profits taken in by its private counterparts. And then, for good measure, the public plan should be made vulnerable to class action suits by participants and have to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation the way that industry leader UnitedHealth Group did earlier this year.
Perhaps then the public plan would be sufficiently inefficient, unresponsive and dysfunctional to provide the level playing field Schumer seeks.
Given the fealty of Democrats like Schumer to the insurance giants, it was satisfying to see him and the rest of the Senate Finance Committee, including its chairman Max Baucus of Montana, put on the spot by activists who repeatedly interrupted a roundtable discussion on expanding health coverage to protest the fact that there was not a single proponent of single payer among the 15 speakers.
Before being removed by Capitol police (photo), one of the protesters accused the committee of listening only to the views of big corporate contributors. Referring to the former governor of Illinois accused of running a pay to play administration, he asked Baucus: “Is this a Blagojevich Senate? Are you the Blagojevich Chairman?” At least Blagojevich had the decency to compromise his principles behind closed doors; Baucus and Schumer do it in plain view.
Note: The protesters represented groups such as Healthcare-NOW, Single Payer Action, and the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program.