Thursday, March 12, 2009

Spreading the Love in Health Care Reform

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You want health care reform, you better just pack your bags and move to France, or maybe Sweden. You'll have time to learn the language, turn old and grey, and maybe kick the bucket before any real reform takes roots in the States, despite the love-fest at Obama's recent forum on healthcare.

Did you see that saccharine nonsense? Democrat Charles Rangel announcing how well he works with counterpart Republican Dave Camp on the Ways and Means Committee, while Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa seconded Obama, "If you aren't ambitious on a major problem like this ... it will never get done." Another Republican, Representative Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, added, "All of us have to be willing to give a little."

Great. Put a reform bill on the agenda. Let's call for a vote. Get those 87 million uninsured Americans plans they can afford, new doctors trained, hospitals repaired, drug companies reined in, so we'll no longer be ashamed to show our faces to our Canadian neighbors that used to spend their days smirking as we snuck over the border to buy our prescription meds and bargain basement cigs.

Let's research not just cancer and stem cells, but AIDS, remember that? And cardiac disease in women since that's mostly what's killing us. Let's reinvigorate nursing, raise pay, and teach both doctors and nurses to respect all their patients, including poor people, and women, and queers.

Unfortunately, that jovial, harmonious tone at the forum was less due to a bipartisan commitment to improving healthcare than a joint determination to take credit for reform while actually watering it down as much as hospital coffee.

The first problem is the political sleazeballs that have accepted $1 billion in lobbying love from the insurance industry and big Pharma just in the last two years. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who told Obama he was "among those interested in seeing us address entitlement reform" pulled in $425,000 since '05. That straight-shooting reformer McCain swallowed $546,000. The head of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, a Democrat of Montana, ate up $413,000.

Barack Obama himself raised more than $2 million from the insurance and pharmaceutical sectors during his record-breaking presidential campaign. The donations were all from individuals, and not PACs, so I guess they won't have much influence. Obama's certainly acted "independent" of LGBT people who dropped a boatload of dough on his campaign and got absolutely nothing in return. But queers are known for being suckers. Big Pharma, not so much.

Besides corruption there's the related problem of process. Obama declared that, "If we want to translate these goals into policies, we need a process that is as transparent and inclusive as possible." Couldn't agree more.

Too bad Obama's committee for "Healthcare Reform Dialogue" is pretty much restricted to heavy-hitters in the healthcare and Pharma industry. Worse, the meetings are held in secret, so we don't know exactly why two labor unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union apparently walked out of the last one. Perhaps they want their money back, too, after spending so much to get Obama in the White House.

There's window-dressing, of course. Characters like 24-year old firefighter, Travis Ulerick, are allowed to hand Obama a summary of all those thousands of community meetings held to discuss the health care crisis so he can use the moment to claim to be responsive to "the concerned citizens, like the folks on this stage."

Snarking aside, the biggest problem is that even if our glorious leaders had clean hands, and were acting in good faith, nobody knows how to untangle the mess.

American health and care is in as bad a shape as the economy, and like with the economy, experts have equally few ideas on how to set right something intertwined with finance, with culture, with infrastructure, education, hell, even the air we breathe and food we eat. And if they suddenly saw a burning bush showing them essential changes to make, they wouldn't dare implement the half.

The healthcare industry can't be attacked right now, not just because they lobby like mad, but because they're the only industry hiring as unemployment goes through the American roof. And who's going to take on Pharma when they have almost the only stocks holding most of their value in the diving market?

All Obama's tepid ideas that the Republican fringe nonetheless calls "radical" or "socialist" don't amount to much more than tinker and patch while insurance premiums rise and quality of care falls. There's little enough to fight over, little to dispute, though we no doubt will, mobilizing millions before both sides claim victory offering a few more people access to healthcare that won't be either cheap or good.

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