By Helen Redmond
When tea party members at a recent Republican presidential debate in Florida laughed with approval and shrieked out “Yeah!” to Wolf Blitzer’s question to Ron Paul asking whether society should let an uninsured person die, I wasn’t surprised. The inhumanity of the crowd that burst into wild applause and enthusiastic affirmations at the notion of letting a human being die was on parade before the congressional vote on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. At a March 2010 protest in the Capitol, a tea party gang accosted Rep. John Lewis, who is African-American, and called him a “nigger” and called openly gay Rep. Barney Frank a “faggot.”
Paul’s position on health care was regurgitated at the debate with a range of Republican talking points: People aren’t turned away from hospitals, church charity can cure the crisis, and medical costs are skyrocketing because “individuals have stopped taking personal responsibility for their health care.” Taking personal responsibility for one’s own health is an artful dodge that suggests the government has no responsibility to provide health care to its population. It is an ideological mantra that health insurance company PR spinmeisters relentlessly front-load to the public via the stenographic mainstream media. Just ask Wendell Potter, the former director of public relations for Cigna and the author of “Deadly Spin,” who spun it for 20 years.
The vampiric industry needs and feeds on risk pools of people ineligible for government- or employer-sponsored health coverage. Their preferred victims are healthy young males who pay monthly premiums but don’t use benefits. A government-run system that included everyone would be a stake through the heart of the industry. The individuals currently blamed for costing the system too much money are the obese and diabetics. If the gluttons and the glycemics would just stop eating duck fat french fries, triple bacon burgers, chocolate cheesecake and move their asses off the couch, there wouldn’t be a health care crisis.
Like Paul, former Whole Foods CEO John Mackey champions less government control, more “personal wellness” and “individual empowerment.” As he argued in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed in 2009 that could have been straight out of the insurance industry PR playbook, “Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges.” The millions of food insecure, the homeless, the foreclosed on, and the uninsured would disagree. Mackey wrote, “Many promoters of health care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?” Millions of people, perhaps the majority, but not Mackey, would say people have an intrinsic right to all three. The truth is, Americans’ health problems are “self-inflicted” through bad lifestyle choices, the ex-CEO believes. The obese are singled out for his wrath—if they just ate a diet “consisting of foods that are plant based” and “low fat,” stopped smoking and exercised, voilà, they’d be disease free. And presumably this health-promoting food would be purchased at Whole Foods.
Paul is fanatically anti-big government, yet he’s spent his entire adult life campaigning for government office or in the employ of government. He served in the “big government” military for five years and had access to government-run health care through the Veterans Administration. Now he’s running to be president of the big government he rails against. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate are members of the millionaires’ club otherwise known as Congress. They’ll never be uninsured because their federal government-sponsored health coverage won’t be dropped or made unaffordable. They have access to the best health care with 10 health plans to choose from. Members of Congress also get special treatment at Washington’s federal medical facilities. For a small additional fee, they have access to their own health care providers and a pharmacy conveniently located between the House and Senate chambers. No need to wait on hold for 20 minutes for the next available rheumatologist’s appointment in six months. No need to wait in line at CVS to pay the uninsured price of $2,000 for two syringes of Humira.
Health care is not a human right, Dr. Paul empathically states on his website. He’s an anti-abortion, former OB-GYN who advocates for the rights of every fertilized egg but not for the right to medical care for fully realized human beings. Hippocratic oath? What’s that?
Paul’s prescription for the millions of uninsured is to leave health care to the magic and mayhem of the market—and if you go bankrupt, it’s your own fault. And bankrupt Americans go. In the United States, the leading cause of bankruptcy is the inability to pay medical bills. It’s so Ron Paul.
Letting people slip between the cracks is actually official health policy in the United States. According to a Harvard study, 45,000 people die every year because they lack access to health care and medicine. Kyle Willis, a 24-year-old Ohio man, is one such casualty. An ER doctor prescribed pain medication and antibiotics to treat his tooth infection, but Willis couldn’t afford both prescriptions. The antibiotic was more expensive so he bought the pain pills. The infection spread to his brain and killed him. Americans die like this every day—it’s just not front page news.
The latest U.S. Census Bureau report found that there are 49.9 million uninsured, but that’s a serious undercount. The report counts anyone who was insured for any part of the year as being insured, but thousands of people lose coverage throughout the year. With job layoffs accelerating—some 120,000 U.S. postal workers are currently facing the ax—the number of uninsured is set to increase. In times of economic crisis with high rates of unemployment, it’s painfully evident how linking health coverage to a full-time job is a disaster.
The suffering of the uninsured was on full display when Remote Area Medical, a nonprofit organization that provides free health care, set up a clinic at Malcolm X College in Chicago this summer. Wherever Remote Area Medical goes, thousands of uninsured line up to receive care, but thousands are turned away. In President Obama’s home state of Illinois, more than 2 million are uninsured. Hundreds of people with sleeping bags camped overnight at the college to get medical, dental and vision care. Patients were registered in a wide corridor, a classroom was set up with rows of dental chairs, and pap smears were done in private staff offices in the basement.
Janice Kelly, a middle-aged African-American woman, arrived at 3 a.m. and joined 60 other people in line. Kelly lost Medicaid coverage in 1998 when she started working part time. The right side of her face was swollen from having three teeth extracted. She had calculated that it cost $125 to have each tooth pulled, plus money for X-rays. It was money she didn’t have. For a year, Kelly treated the tooth pain with Orajel and Advil.
Remote Area Medical provided health care to 2,000 people over three days, the vast majority of whom were poor and black with little hope of finding jobs or affordable health coverage. Every person I interviewed, including a leading physician and one of the main event organizers, believed that health care was a human right and was in favor of a system run by the government. They wanted “Medicare for all.” Kelly said, “Just like they have in Canada and Europe. … It’s something everyone needs because sooner or later we’re all going to get sick and need some help. No one should be denied.” For more than a decade, poll after poll has shown that a majority of Americans support a government-run health program that covers everyone. And in a sea change of attitude, a majority of doctors, fed up with private insurers’ interference with medical decisions, support single-payer plans. Once again, the political consciousness of the public is far ahead of party-minded politicians who live and breathe deep inside the D.C. Beltway infested with thousands of insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists.
In 2003, then-Sen. Obama supported the single-payer idea. He said at a labor conference, “I happen to be a proponent of a single payer, universal health care program. … I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its gross national product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. A single-payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see. … First we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, and we have to take back the House.”
Obama got all three wishes, but as president he broke his promise to single-payer advocates, locked them out of health care reform discussions, and passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a piece of legislation so ridiculously inadequate in resolving the health care crisis it’s bound to go down in history as one of the cruelest jokes ever played on the American people. The act is a 2,000-page laughable tract written by the insurance industry for the insurance industry. It leaves 23 million uninsured, denies undocumented immigrants health coverage, doesn’t cover abortion unless women pay separately, and mandates that the uninsured buy expensive, high deductible, high co-pay health plans via complicated state insurance exchanges or face a financial penalty. Medicaid is under bipartisan assault and hundreds of thousands of recipients have been cut off and benefits reduced to decrease state budget deficits. The Democrats are proposing $72 billion in federal cuts to the program. The act expands the Medicaid program to cover an additional 26 million people, but does anyone believe the federal government will still pay the entire cost for the expansion as promised? And how can Medicaid expand to absorb the millions who will be eligible for coverage in three years if it is continually being downsized?
Who else is making bank? That would be health insurance industry CEOs and stockholders, who in the midst of one of the deepest recessions have pocketed record profits. America’s top five health insurance companies increased their profits by 56 percent for a combined profit of $12.2 billion in 2009, the same year that 2.7 million people lost their private health insurance.
They’re laughing all the way to Wall Street—stuffed with taxpayer money—while people die.
AP / Phil Sandlin