Rep. Dennis Kucinich tells us why he isn’t buckling under pressure to vote for the president’s health care reform bill: “Every plan that’s put forth by our government ends up benefiting the health insurance industry.”
Peter Scheer: This is the Truthdig podcast. I’m Peter Scheer. Earlier today my brother Josh and I spoke with Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who explained why he opposes the president’s health care reform bill. He also told us about his own bill calling for a full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Here now is our interview.
P.S.: So Congressman, you had on Monday an interview with “Countdown” that got lots of headlines where you said that you would not vote for the health care reform bill. You didn’t vote for the first health care reform bill. Is that a firm “no,” is there something that they could put in the bill that would get you to vote “yes” for it?
Dennis Kucinich: I have had several meetings with the president on this bill. And I have indicated my concerns. No effort was made to address the concerns that I raised. I offered to come to the health care summit. The White House wasn’t interested. Even at this late date I have suggested that they resurrect a robust public option, and protect the legal right of states to set up their own single-payer system. They’re not interested. You know, I’m still open to the White House’s efforts to continue to make the bill one that can be supported. But I just don’t know if any further efforts on their part can be expected. And you have to keep in mind I’ve led the way on health care in two presidential campaigns advocating Medicare for all. With the help of a California delegation in 2000, and again in 2004 and 2008, I brought the issue of Medicare for all to the Democratic platform and ask them to take a position on it. When I supported in committee a public option that was a compromise. But that public option was stripped. When I attached an amendment in committee to protect the rights of states to set up their own single-payer, for a Medicare-for-all program, and to protect a legal attack on the insurance companies, that amendment was stripped. I’m still waiting to see if the White House has any interest in changing any of the provisions of the bill to make it worth supporting.
P.S.: It must be awfully frustrating that they are stonewalling you and yet they seem to be making gestures to the pro-life congressmen who are threatening not to support the bill.
D.K.: I can tell you that I think that our country has not properly dealt with the abortion issue. We can move very strongly to make abortions less necessary by having prenatal care, postnatal care, childcare, universal health care, and a living wage. That would help create a culture of life, and I think that would do more than anything else that could be done to create conditions that would help heal the divisions in this society over the abortion issue. But efforts to try to deal with it in just the ordinary give and take of the legislative process are always going to be difficult.
Josh Scheer: I am going to jump in real quick. The bill that they are bringing up, is that the insurance companies are going to get what they want and we, we as the government, are going to spend trillions of dollars, right?
D.K.: Well, 70 billion dollars a year, in terms of subsidies. And the problem is there’s no control of premiums. We’ve had five consecutive double-digit increases in premiums by the insurance industry. In the last five years. And there’s no end in sight to the increase in premiums. And why would they limit their rapaciousness in premiums when the government is going to be subsidizing health care?
P.S.: Well, isn’t the president or his aides, what have they said to you in these discussions?
D.K.: Well, they want my vote, I understand that. But they’re not really going to change the bill. When you force people to buy private insurance and you’ve got a situation where the government on one hand isn’t going to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies, which means that pharmaceutical costs are going to be driven up, and we’re subsidizing the insurance companies, on the other hand, to the tune of 70 billion a year. This can only drive up the overall costs of health care and put Medicare in jeopardy. I think that the suggestion that “we don’t have the votes for what you’re advocating, Dennis,” which is what I’ve been told over and over, I haven’t’ seen any example where they really tried. I haven’t seen the fight, I haven’t seen the stand. I haven’t seen anyone really stake something on trying to cover everyone and to minimize the role of the insurance companies. At this point right now what we have is insurance care, more than health care. And just because someone’s insured doesn’t mean they’re going to get health care. Half the bankruptcies of the United States are connected to people who are insured. Why is that? Because just having insurance doesn’t solve all your problems. If we keep this thing locked in the framework of private for-profit health care, I don’t think we can ever get out. We intensify the hold that private insurers have on the country.
J.S.: Your amendment wasn’t also a straight-government program, right? It was allowing the states to have the option, in a way in competition to the insurance companies, whereas the Obama plan does mandate, could force us to get health care from a private insurer, right?
D.K.: The amendment that I had was to address [the] condition where currently insurance companies are challenging regional and state plans to set up health insurance programs using the Employee Retirement Income Security Act as a basis. What I wanted to do was to create a waiver so that any state that would apply to the right to have a single-payer plan would waive the “risk of pre-emption,” which is being used by insurance companies to attack the rights of states to set up single-payer plans. That amendment passed the committee; it was stripped after it passed the committee. As was the single-payer provisions of the bill. I’m sorry if I said single-payer, the public option provision was stripped out. I keep thinking about single-payer because the single-payer proposal that’s embodied in the bill I wrote with John Conyers, HR 676, isn’t a government takeover of hospitals, it’s the government paying the bills that all the health care assets in the country be converted to not-for-profit. Except for the financial structure, everything stays the same as far as the bill. The government doesn’t go into the business of owning real estate.
P.S.: We’ve seen throughout this debate huge majorities of the country favoring a public option and yet the president’s never really fought for it, even though he said he favored it. In fact, it’s the first thing to get dealt away. Why do you think that is?
D.K.: The insurance companies have enormous influence. Every time we have seen, whenever the House proposal came through, when the Senate proposal came through, the White House proposal came through. Each time health care stocks went up on Wall Street. And investment analysts recommended that people buy health care stocks. Because that’s the nature of business. On one hand you can look at that system and say “they’re in it to make money, what do you expect?” But on the other hand, if you think that health care is a privilege based on an ability to pay, you have every right to make that observation. If you think that health care is a fundamental right in democratic society, that’s an outrage that every plan that has been put forth by our government ends up benefiting the health insurance industry. It’s like heads they win, tails we lose. We have to do better than that. And that’s why in this debate I’ve tried to keep alive the hope for policies to be brought forward even at this late date that could create real competition. Such as a public option, even though I didn’t come into it favoring the public option because single-payer is much more extensive than public option. But at least you create some competition. Without the competition, we’ve got huge increases in rates.
J.S.: Do the Democrats want, I know you said this on MSNBC about building it by sand … Why can’t you pass this weakened health care bill and try to get something better in the future? Could you maybe go a little deeper on that? Is it better to not have anything?
D.K.: People which way? Here’s the thing. If we have 31 million people declared to have private insurance, what we would have done, effectively, is to privatize further our health insurance system. And this is a step in the direction of the insurance companies moving more and more into the Medicare program itself. A few years ago we had to fight back an effort to privatize Social Security and I see this as opening, permitting the insurance companies to put themselves within the circumference on an attack on Medicare itself. With the government providing the subsidies and guarantees of profits. There are people who are framing this as a fight, in moral terms, as a fight for principle. And what’s the principle? The principle of private, for-profit insurance which gouges people. And which makes money by not providing health care. To me, this isn’t about left or right, this isn’t even about Democrats or Republicans; it’s about up and down. And there’s another game going on over our heads. Insurance companies are playing to win whether the insurance bill passes or not. You have to look at the stock market quotes on health insurance companies. I have been ready to compromise by supporting the public option. And once that was stripped, it was a confirmation of the power of the insurance companies in order to prevent any kind of competition. And without competition what you have is a rigged game. They’re in a position to collude, there’s no indication that the antitrust exemption, which the insurance companies lost in a vote in the House two weeks ago, is going to pass the Senate. There’s no hope of being able to control insurance companies premiums with the government having to subsidize the rates. I’m just saying we need health care, not insurance care. And if the national government can’t step up to the challenge, then the states are going to move forward. That’s why it’s important to protect the rights of states to create single-payer systems without the private insurance companies using ERISA to block single-payer. Even at this late date I’m still listening very carefully to what’s being said, but unless there is a dramatic change being brought forward in the next week, I don’t see how this bill deserves my support.
P.S.: You’re at the center of another great moral issue of our time, which is the war in Afghanistan. You have a bill calling for a return of all troops from Afghanistan within 30 days or a year, as I understand it?
P.S.: And is that coming up for a vote soon?
D.K.: We’ll have a vote on it tomorrow. It’s the first time that we would have had a vote and debate on Afghanistan since the war began with the attack on the al-Qaida training camps after 9/11. We, as a Congress, have a responsibility to the American people and to the troops to debate this war, and an article that was published in The Washington Post last month revealed that 1,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and 30 percent of them had been veterans in the war in Iraq. So there’s an impact on our troops that’s not being discussed, there’s an impact on innocent civilians which has escaped discussion in the Congress. There’s an impact on the federal budget. Hundreds of billions of dollars being spent for a war where there is no end in sight, and where every historical analysis indicates Afghanistan is not a country to be conquered. We are in a war supporting a state that has been charitably described as a narco-state and uncharitably described as a kleptocracy. You have the [Hamid] Karzai government engaging in crony capitalism using money presumed to be from the U.S. to help set up their friends in business through a favored bank, and with Karzai’s friends and family building villas in Dubai. So of course this is an issue which demands a debate. And my bill would favor a timeline for withdrawal, it invokes the War Powers Resolution, and it is intended to secure Congress’ constitutional responsibilities within Article 1, Section 8, to decide whether America goes to war or stays to war.
J.S.: And you’re going to get three hours’ debate tomorrow.
D.K.: There will be three hours of debate on the floor of the House.
J.S.: So every member can come voice their concerns.
D.K.: And members who want to take a position on this will be able to. And it’s important that members of Congress, whatever their position, be heard from. We cannot continue to drift into a war that keeps moving far towards the horizon that is deepening with a surge that is costing more, that has yet to produce any results that would suggest those who were advocating the war have been able to rescue the legitimacy of their position.
P.S.: Is it possible that your bill will be used as a way for members of the House to register their protest against the war but also support the war financially?
D.K.: Well, this has been a consistent problem in the Congress of the United States. The course has held that ultimately Congress’ power of the purse can end the war. But this bill certainly could end this war if people decide to vote for it. We’ve just taken an important step in the direction of getting out of Afghanistan. But what keeps the troops in Afghanistan is the funding. So Congress will have a second chance to vote against a supplemental. This is why I vote against the supplemental. Congress fuels the war with money.
P.S.: You know throughout the health care debate and the debate about the war, it seems that the House is a lot more responsible to the will of the public. How do we get rid of the Senate?
D.K.: The only way you can get rid of the Senate is not to run for it.
P.S.: Josh, you want to follow that up?
J.S.: I think the design of the system, right, is the balance of representatives of the people’s body, it’s a long six-year term, so a little old. ...
P.S.: More responsive to the will of insurance companies.
D.K.: We cannot sustain this health care system, it’s financially unsustainable, and it’s morally unsustainable. The reason why there’s 47 million Americans out of health insurance is that people can’t afford it. So the government is going to subsidize private insurance to enable people to be able to have health care. Why don’t we just cut out the middleman? It’s a novel idea. Cut the insurance companies out of the business. Use the money for people.
P.S.: At some point does this feeding frenzy on the government, with the bailout and the giveaway to insurance companies, and the military-industrial complex, at some point doesn’t it have to come crashing down?
D.K.: Well, it has, the subprime meltdown, the bailouts to Wall Street, the tax breaks that have gone to the top 1 percent, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the expanding military budget, is all about the acceleration of the wealth of this country upwards into fewer and fewer hands. Not only 15 million people unemployed, 12 million people underemployed, 8-10 million people in danger of losing their homes. One-quarter to one-third people underwater in their mortgages. Commercial real estate collapsing. Regional small banks in trouble. We have a financial system that is falling apart when Wall Street is giving out multimillion-dollar bonuses totaling billions of dollars. And this divide between Main Street and Wall Street keeps growing. And this health care plan is an intensification of the divisions; we have to really decide if there is such a thing as government of the people—because right now Wall Street is calling the shots. The Fed is calling the shots on behalf of Wall Street. The Fed is putting money and banks have taken it and parked it and not loaned it to businesses. The government loses its ability to be able to chart a course that would protect the interest of the public. Our monetary policy is wrong. Our trade policy is wrong. We should have a full-employment economy. We don’t. We should have health care for all. We don’t. We should have a right to own a home in this country, there’s no such thing. People should have a decent education. Education has been shoved aside. All of these fundamental assumptions about what it means to have a chance to take part of the American dream are just being trashed—with war and with the financial excess of the speculator class on Wall Street. It’s a very trying time for our nation and I think that America can recover from all of this, but we can’t do it by asking for interest groups to be involved in the allocation of health care, of jobs, of credit, of housing. There has to be a fundamental defining role for the government to play as an arbiter, as an advocate, as a regulator, and as a force for public good.
P.S.: Well, Congressman, thank you so much for your time and good work.
D.K.: I appreciate the chance to talk with you. Good day, Josh.
P.S.: Bye, Dennis.
D.K.: Bye now.
AP / Jason Reed, pool
President Barack Obama greets Rep. Dennis Kucinich as he leaves the chamber after his speech about health care reform before a joint session of Congress.