16 January 2007

Harry and Louise Redux

A number of healthcare pundits have suggested that the United States will stumble along, possibly enacting ineffective healthcare reforms over the next few years, and then, a decade from now, when the situation has moved from SNAFU to glaringly catastrophic (like the difference between 2004 and 2006 in Iraq, say) we'll put into place a single-payer system.

Sometimes those folks sound like the optimists. It's also possible that big business has so much clout that we'll simply become a country where people are expendable but where business and the top 1 percent won't be too affected by it. Other than the sickening realization that will hit a few of them, now and then, that they've left their children and grandchildren a country that has devolved into a Social Darwinist red-in-tooth-and-claw kind of Ayn Rand paradise — like, for instance, Karachi, Pakistan. Ayn would possibly be augmented with a harsh fundamentalist religion giving some semblance of meaning to the masses of disinherited citizens. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Today's Los Angeles Times fueled the pessimistic view.

Staff writers Tom Hamburger and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar noted that "employer-sponsored coverage has continued to erode. The share of workers covered through their jobs fell from 81% in 2001 to 77% in 2005. Many small and midsize employers no longer offer coverage, and some new businesses deem their employees self-employed contractors responsible for their own benefits."

American competitiveness has been hurt by our healthcare non-system. The U.S. big three auto manufacturers in 2003 penned an open letter to the Canadian government, praising their system and saying it saved them $4 a worker hour, about $1,300 per finished vehicle. Toyota located their newest North American factory in Canada. They said that Canada’s single-payer, universal healthcare system weighed heavily in their decision to locate there.

But if healthcare "reform" simply offloads costs to individuals from employers, Americans are going to be even less secure. It won't just be 47 million uninsured and an equal number underinsured. It could be 90 percent of people outside of Medicare and Medicaid underinsured, with only the elite flush enough to pay sky-high premiums for adequate coverage.

Hamburger and Alonso reported that Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, and the director of the Business Roundtable, representing the nation's corporate heavy-hitters, will today announce a campaign to overhaul healthcare.

Come Thursday, private health insurance companies, doctors' organizations and health-activist groups will announce a plan for universal coverage.

"This week marks a kind of tipping point," Karen Ignagni told the LAT writers.

Ignagni leads the health insurance industry's trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, in Washington. Her group produced the Harry and Louise commercials that effectively turned the country against reform, aka "Hillarycare," back in 1993 and 1994. Harry and Louise worried over the government meddling in their personal decisions over healthcare, paving the way for big, for-profit insurance companies to do so.

Not to worry. No doubt the Democrats, traditional protectors of the middle class, are in the thick of it all, fighting for a single-payer system, or at the least a French-style multi-payer system that guarantees 100-percent, universal coverage and at the same time keeps prices in check and bolsters quality. Aren't they?

Hamburger and Alonso got a quote on that. "I think the Democrats are concerned lest they seem too radical," Rep. Pete Stark of Fremont, Calif., told them. He speaks with some authority, being chairman of the House health subcommittee. "We've got to win again in 2008, and I don't think we want to come out and talk about universal coverage or anything that sounds like socialized medicine."

Healthcare activists have been saying for a long time that the public is way out ahead of the politicians on this, but Stark's quotes sound almost like a caricature. Let's allow the enemies of reform to frame the debate, and then let's announce that we're afraid of them. Yeah, that'll work.

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