…Before America’s Un- and Underinsured Can Get Theirs

By Matt Willemain

Apparently reluctant to say that President Obama was a liar, the Hunger Action Network of New York State (HANYS) decided to “call on President Obama to be Truthful with the American People.”  HANYS is a 27-year old statewide antipoverty activist group, accessible online at www.hungeractionnys.org/.  HANYS, advocating for a single payer universal health care system to cover every single one of the tens of millions of Americans without health insurance, implied that the President was being dishonest in a press release critical of Obama’s national leadership in the health care policy debate.  The question of the President’s honesty in this situation has serious implications on the way national decisions, with huge impacts on our lives, are made.

The March 6 press release echoed a similar criticism made on the advocacy-journalism radio program Democracy Now that same morning.  The day before, Thursday, March 5, Obama had convened a high profile White House health care summit with 120 “stakeholders” to kickstart the policy making process.  Both HANYS and Democracy Now co-anchor and New York Daily News columnist, Juan Gonzalez, noticed an inconsistency in the Obama administration’s statements.  In the lofty rhetoric of his opening remarks, written to sound good on television, Obama said that, “every voice has to be heard. Every idea must be considered. Every option must be on the table.”  But other public statements by the President and his allies and, tellingly, their actions, suggest that the minds of Obama and others in Washington aren’t quite so open to finding the best solution, wherever it may be.

For his part, the President has already ruled out the single payer system preferred by HANYS.  “The President doesn’t believe that’s the best way to achieve the goal of cutting costs and increasing access,” explained White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in the March 6 daily press briefing.  Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, a Democratic leader in the inner circle shaping proposals in congress, has been more direct, issuing flat rejections of the single payer proposal.  In a mirror image of Obama’s words, for example, Baucus declared single payer “off the table” in public appearances he made travelling his home state.

The actions of these Washington insiders add even more weight to their words.  Press Secretary Gibbs joked with reporters that the White House wasn’t the Washington Nationals’ ballpark, in order to apologize for the limits on who could be invited to the summit.  But with 120 seats to fill, Obama’s bias was exposed by his choice of house guests.  The administration was careful to invite the selfish special interests most vocally opposed to single payer, for-profit insurers and pharmaceutical companies.  At the same time, they initially invited no supporters of single payer, whatsoever.  Long-serving Congressman John Conyers, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee and the sponsor of HR 676, a single payer bill with broad support (100 cosponsors in the last House session), had to beg his way in.  Facing protests, eventually Obama allowed Conyers and one single payer activist a seat.

Embarrassingly, Senator Baucus was caught trying to bully congressional bean counters into fudging the numbers to make proposals like his and Obama’s look better.

What’s going on here?  Why is President Obama lying about hearing everyone out and considering each proposal?  Why is Senator Baucus trying to “adjust” the facts?

The Democratic leadership is caught up in some serious cognitive dissonance because the fix is in on making the wrong decision for America.  Single payer, similar to the health care system used by virtually ever other wealthy country in the world, is an overwhelming winner.  After exhaustive studies and debate, the evidence is in, single payer is without a doubt the best way to both take care of everyone in America and control costs at the same time.  The arguments articulated by single payer advocates, like Physicians for a National Health Program (www.pnhp.org) can’t be beaten in any fair fight.  The analysis of experts is in line with the popular will; clear majorities of doctors, health economists and the general public all support single payer.

Even Obama seems to know that single payer is the right thing to do.  As HANYS points out in their press release, Obama representatives have admitted that if “he was starting from scratch” he would choose single payer.  Luke Mitchell, Senior Editor at Harper’s Magazine, and a guest on that Democracy Now broadcast, found even more evidence that Obama knows what he ought to be doing.  In his Harper’s article “Sick in the Head: Why America Won’t Get the Health Care System it Needs,” Mitchell reports:

“I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer health-care program,” Barack Obama said in 2003. “As all of us know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, we have to take back the House.”… And now that Democrats have the White House, the Senate, and the House, it is clear that a single-payer program is not a part of their agenda.”

Not everyone supports single payer, however.  Influential campaign donors and media oligopolists, for example, oppose the system.  That Washington insiders are poised to once again defer to these interests and knowingly enact bad policy speaks volumes about the glaring deficiencies in the instruments and practices of our democracy.  The marketplace of ideas—the idea that candidates who champion ideas with merit will win out in an open competition for votes—has been distorted beyond recognition by monopolies of power that perversely limit which candidates and lines of inquiry are allowed into the conversation.

Writing in the Sunday Washington Post, Dan Egger reported how the “health sector has donated millions to lawmakers.”  While the health care industry has “long ranked with financial services and energy interests as one of the most powerful political forces in Washington, and it spent nearly $1 billion on lobbying in the past two years alone,” as Eggen reports, in the past four years they have stepped up their donations to candidates’ campaign funds.

The Post story is based on a report by Consumer Watchdog (a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group online at www.consumerwatchdog.org) which analyzed federal election data and counted the campaign donations from health insurance and drug companies to the ten lawmakers in each house who received the most such legalized bribes.  Those twenty individuals alone raked in more than $5.5 million.  Senator Baucus, for example, was at the front of the pack, with $400,000 of his campaign funds coming from these special interests.

At the same time, newspapers and television news programs are whitewashing single payer out of the picture.  Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog organization accessible online at www.fair.org, searched through all major national newspapers and news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and the PBS News Hour for the week leading up to the health care summit.  FAIR found hundreds of stories about health care policy, and a grand total of five of those stories included the perspective of supporters of single payer.

Given all the evidence and popular support for single payer (FAIR cites one recent opinion poll that finds the public prefers single payer by a 2-1 margin), the challenge HANYS issued to Obama in their press release is a tricky one.  If Obama, Baucus, and others of their ilk in Washington, are honest, they will have to admit that they are ignoring single payer in their search for a health care policy.  If they make that admission, they will have no leg to stand on, and will be forced to consider it.  Once single payer is in the mix, and assuming Baucus doesn’t cheat and get the data changed to suit his preferred results, they will have no choice but to support single payer. It is the best solution for America’s health care needs.  But if they support single payer, what will happen to the regular infusions of millions of dollars from the tiny, selfish minority of single payer opponents—money they count on to help them buy the crooked elections that put them in power?