Clunker Healthcare Bill Protects Private Insurers Damages Democracy

by Billy Wharton / March 25th, 2010

desperately need healthcare.  The need is so desperate that many are
buying into a “something is better than nothing” philosophy to support
a healthcare bill that actively works against their own interests.  The
bill that Barack Obama plans to sign into law is being dubbed a
“reform,” but actually amounts to a corporate restructuring that will
solidify the reliance on the same private insurance companies that have
caused the crisis in the nation’s healthcare system. As single-payer
activist, Dr. Margaret Flowers stated, “The Democratic Party has now
moved so far to the right that they have just passed a Republican
health bill.”  This is no surprise.  Private insurers and
pharmaceutical companies have flooded the electoral system with money
in order to guarantee their continued ability to accumulate profits.

Junk Healthcare Plans and the Race to the Bottom

At nearly 2,500 pages, the bill contains a myriad of loopholes that
will allow private insurers to continue nearly all of the immoral
practices that have, according to a Harvard University study, resulted
in more than 40,000 deaths per year due to treatable conditions.  In
fact, private insurers will now receive taxpayer funds to subsidize the
sale of junk healthcare plans that the group Physicians for a National
Health Program estimates will only cover 70% of people’s medical
needs.  This will likely spark a race-to-the-bottom as employers look
to provide the minimum amount of coverage possible, insurers grab
ever-increasing chunks of public money and people continue to face the
prospect of soaring out-of-pocket costs, deep medical debts and death
from treatable illnesses.

However, Americans have adjusted to profit driven healthcare by
avoiding it.  A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 6 out
of 10 Americans had deferred or delayed what they understood as
necessary medical treatment.  To close this option, the Healthcare Bill
lends the coercive power of government to private health insurers.  For
the first time in American history, citizens will be forced to purchase
health insurance or face stiff annual fines.  Such a mandate guarantees
that millions of people will be herded into the new “health insurance
exchanges,” an idea created by the Heritage Foundation, in order to
fork over their money to private insurers.  Estimates are that this
will produce more than 20 million new customers for abusive insurers
such as Humana, Oxford and Aetna.

When Corporations Own Democracy

The bill is a remarkably clear demonstration of the power of
corporate money and influence in politics.  Health insurers spent an
average of $600,000 a day for lobbying during the first six months of
2009.  Lobbyists had a seat at the table during all parts of the
writing, debate and approval of the bill.  When single-payer advocates
from the Physicians for a National Health Program and Healthcare-NOW
attempted to participate in proceedings at the Senate Finance
Committee, they were first denied a seat at the table and then
arrested.  All along, the insurance lobby followed the basic strategy
they have employed since the 1990s – either prevent any reform or stick
people with a bad reform.  Welcome to the bad reform.

The fix was in from the beginning.  This was clear as Democrats
stumbled through “town hall meetings” during the summer of 2009.  Most
could not explain the details of the plan and relied on vague appeals
to the obvious fact that people needed access care.  Most had already
taken hefty campaign contributions from the insurance and
pharmaceutical lobby.  Meanwhile, the bill grew in size and in
pro-corporate credentials.  Republicans added more than 100 amendments,
Democrats negotiated away any even vaguely progressive language and the
insurance industry opened profit-rich loopholes.  Along the way, Obama
made anti-abortion pledges and immigrants were thrown out of the
legislation.  Gone was Obama’s campaign pledge to create “universal
healthcare”.  It was replaced by the neoliberal slogan of “choice and

Democrats: For Sale or Lease

A few Democrats put up symbolic resistance.  House Representative
Anthony Weiner cashed-in politically by running a slick public
relations campaign nominally in support of single-payer before fading
back into line with Obama.  Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent,
tried the insider route, attempting to carve out provisions that would
allow state-by-state single-payer systems and that would create a
public option.  This failed and Sanders withdrew, choosing to
go-along-to-get-along.  Dennis Kucinich was held up as a “last honest
man” figure.  Kucinich has serious single-payer credentials and seemed
fearless in his criticism of both the content and process of the bill. 
He correctly surmised that the House Bill “…would put the government in
the role of accelerating the privatization of health care” and voted No
during the first round in the House.  Yet, as the clunky pro-corporate
bill lumbered toward a final vote, Democratic Party leadership broke
Kucinich, squeezing a Yes vote out of him presumably upon threat of
running a well-financed candidate against him in future elections.  In
a scene more reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia, a defeated Kucinich
held a press conference to describe why he was going to vote Yes for a
bill that he opposes.

Along the way, the Democrats received a wonderful political gift –
the Tea Partiers.  Both the conservative and liberal media focused in
on tea-party demonstrations in order to craft them as the face of the
opposition to the bill.  A motley reactionary crew of racists,
gun-lovers, and right-wing libertarian yahoos provided pro-corporate
Democrats with the chance to appear as the rational defenders of the
people.  Single-payer advocates were unable to break this embargo
despite a variety of tactics ranging from civil disobedience to letter
writing.  Ultimately, the Obama administration was able to present the
struggle as one between healthcare “reformers” and far-right wackos
looking to wreck his presidency.  All this was done in the service of
protecting the insurance companies from the serious critique offered by

A Medical Cash-for-Clunkers

The healthcare bill fits smoothly into the Obama administration’s
now clearly established economic strategy.  Unlike the Bush
administration, who attempted to use jumbled down-home rhetoric to
cover class war from above, Obama has created a grotesque form of lemon
socialism disguised by the language of reform.  Under lemon socialism,
financial losses are laid off on the public while private corporations
retain the profits.  Consider this bill as the healthcare version of
cash-for-clunkers.  Public money that could be used for the social good
will be sent to bankroll abusive, inefficient and anti-human private
corporations.  Same with the bank bailout, and the war economy and the
education policy.  The administration speaks the language of reform,
but enacts the policies of neoliberal privatization, no matter what the
cost to the public in terms of funds or lives.

There are simple lessons to be learned from all of this – the market
and corporations have no role to play in either healthcare or
politics.  Insurance companies merely disrupt the relationship between
doctors and patients.  They add nothing to the healthcare system and
suck off profits by limiting or denying access to care.  These profits
are then re-deployed in the political system to buy both Democratic and
Republican politicians through a corrupting system of lobbying and
campaign contributions.  Now that the Supreme Court has provided
corporations with an unlimited ability to donate money to candidates,
these trends are sure to increase.

Democracy or the Rich?

Now is the time to put an end to this process.  On healthcare, we
need to re-build the single-payer movement, rooting it in poor and
working class communities, winning over our trade unions and growing
into a mass movement whose demands can neither be denied nor ignored as
utopian.  Single-payer can open the door for a fully socialized medical
system in which healthcare is finally recognized as a guaranteed human

Such a movement will be one part of a broader upsurge for democracy
from below that seeks to address the fact that 5% of the population in
America controls 85% of the wealth.  As the reformer Justice Louis
Brandeis once wrote, “We can have democracy in this country or we can
have great wealth in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”  We
can accomplish this at the ballot box by voting for green and red
candidates who support single-payer and in the streets by creating an
uncompromising social movement that puts human needs first and aims to
relegate the insurance companies, the banks and the multinationals to
the position they so rightly deserve – the dustbin of history.

Billy Wharton is the editor of The Socialist magazine and the Socialist WebZine. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy’s website.

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