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What’s Your Policy?

It’s easy to forget that President Jimmy Carter tried but failed to get a national health program, even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Sixteen years later, President Bill Clinton waltzed into the Oval Office with a Democratic majority in both houses and put his wife in charge of creating a health-care program. Opponents of the plan derided and demolished it so thoroughly that the idea of government- sponsored health care was never mentioned again. Until now.

Now it’s déjà vu all over again! But wait, President Obama said it’s different this time. He’s invited all sorts of people to come to the health-care bargaining table. And he was especially happy to welcome Karen Ignagni of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the group that ran the misleading “Harry and Louise” advertisements that helped destroy the Clinton plan. Obama said he knew things were different when Karen told him, “We want to work with you.”

Isn’t that what the fox says to the chickens? The insurance companies want to work with the president and Congress to make sure that whatever health-care program emerges, the financing will be run by insurance companies. They have never, ever worked with anybody to reduce their profits.

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and his Senate Finance Committee have jurisdiction over major public health-insurance programs and have been holding hearings. Like Obama, Sen. Baucus has invited all sorts of people to come and testify: representatives from pharmaceutical groups, insurance companies, HMOs and the like. Oddly enough, the only people he’s forgotten to invite are those who favor a single-payer system, a system that has broad popular support.

Or maybe Baucus’ forgetfulness isn’t so odd. After all, at last count, the senator had received a total of $3,902,785 from the health-insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies, HMOs and the like.

As for Barack Obama, he believes it’s too late to construct a single-payer health system. “People don’t have time to wait,” Obama said. “They need relief now. So my attitude is let’s build up the system we got. Let’s make it more efficient. We may over time—as we make the system more efficient and everybody’s covered—decide that there are other ways for us to provide care more effectively.”

The “system we got” is commercial health insurance, and building it up means getting everybody, one way or another, signed onto a private health-insurance policy. And if it’s difficult to change the system now, it will be near impossible to change it when insurance companies have enrolled everybody in the country, have hired even more employees, and have poured even more money into Congress.

As for government health insurance, Max Baucus said, “That’s an option. It’s on the table.” Yes, it’s on the table so it can be embalmed and put away for a long, long time.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, the generally moderate Maine Republican, said a bipartisan group on the Senate Finance Committee is considering a delay of several years before thinking about a “public option” health insurance plan. It’s no secret that the health-insurance industry doesn’t want competition from the government.

Big money-making insurance companies, such as Aetna, say they would be at a disadvantage in a system that included government health insurance that, in effect, offered Medicare’s lower costs to anybody who signed up for it. And Medco Health Solutions threatened that such a plan would undo the cooperative effort to improve national health-care policy. By the way, Medco spent $990,000 in the first quarter of this year lobbying about health-care information technology, antitrust laws and Medicare rules.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which compares trends among 30 industrialized countries, reports that the United States spends more per capita on health care than any other nation; the cost is rising faster in the United States than anywhere else; and a greater proportion of the cost goes to administration than in any other country. And yet, according to the Commonwealth Fund, we rank lowest among industrialized countries “in preventing deaths through use of timely and effective medical care.” The World Health Organization says our health-care system rates 37th in the world in terms of quality and fairness.

The health-care system now being patched together in Congress has as its core principle that the government must not provide health insurance and that everybody must be covered by commercial health insurance. The bed wetters in Congress fear anything like Medicare, but swoon over insurance companies. It’s time they grew up.

—Gene Mirabelli

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