Congress Needs to Protect Americans, Not Insurance Companies

By Mark Dunlea, Executive Director, Hunger Action Network of NYS

As Congress negotiates health care reform, Democratic leaders have put the interests of insurance companies ahead of the needs of American citizens.

If Americans want an affordable, quality health care system that enables consumers to choose whom they receive health care services from, private for-profit insurance companies must be eliminated. Michael Moore’s movie SICKO correctly highlighted the problems with insurance companies rather than the problem of the uninsured. While the lack of health insurance is estimated to kill 18,000 Americans annually, for-profit insurance companies kill far more with their unreasonable denial and delay in approving treatment as they seek to maximize their profits.

The majority of Americans who file for bankruptcy do so due to high medical bills. Incredibly, 77% had private health insurance. They are shocked to discover that their policy failed to cover the high costs of their medical emergency. Having health insurance is no guarantee that you will receive needed health care – yet many politicians tend to equate the two.

Despite having some of the best doctors, nurses and hospitals in the world and spending twice as much per capita, the US “health care” system is routinely rated the worst among all the industrial countries. The World Health Organization ranks us 37th. We have higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy, fewer doctor visits and longer waiting times than the other industrial countries. The fact that fifty million Americans lack health insurance contributes to the poor performance of our health system. The central role of for-profit health insurance companies and their rules, paperwork and bureaucracy is the other major factor.

Some other industrial countries allow for supplemental insurance to cover options beyond core health care. But they do not allow the insurance companies to be for-profit and the firms are strongly regulated as to how they operate. In America, we allow for-profit insurance companies to dictate if and how health care will be delivered and paid for.

Democrats in Washington understand this but for a variety of reasons they have decided to protect the insurance companies. A major factor is the large campaign contributions made by insurance companies. Even Congressional members who don’t receive huge payments from insurance companies worry about their significant political clout and decide to cut a deal with the insurance industry, supporting incremental changes, figuring half a loaf is better than nothing. They’re wrong.

The proposals being advanced by the White House and Congressional Democratic leaders will leave tens of millions without health insurance or care; will mandate expensive and inadequate health insurance to many more (so medical bankruptcies will continue to proliferate); and will actually increase the amount of money spent for health care. If implemented, these shortcomings will undercut future support for real reform.

America does not need to spend more money on health care. Our health care expenditures amount to more than one-sixth of our economy. Just the amount of tax dollars we already spend per capita on Medicare and Medicaid is greater than the health care expenditures of other industrial countries, yet they manage to cover everyone. Health industry defenders argue that we spend more money because we are a rich country and have the discretion to invest in health care and live longer. But the other industrial countries spend less than we do, yet live longer and have better health care systems.

Where does all the extra money for health care go in the US? Certainly some goes to medical specialists, overinvestment in the newest expensive technology (to increase profits), drug companies and for profit medical providers. But much of it goes to insurance companies which provide virtually nothing of value to our health care services while forcing the rest of the health care system to waste a lot money and time dealing with them. Eliminating for-profit private health insurance could save as much as $400 billion annually.

Instead of cutting health care expenditures, the Democrats want to spend a lot more, in order to protect the insurance companies. They propose expanding subsidies and payments to insurance companies (e.g., enacting various insurance mandates) while making consumers pay more (e.g., taxing health benefits) for less services (e.g., cutting back on Medicare and Medicaid).

Experience also shows us that the “half a loaf” approach to universal health care doesn’t work. A number of states have launched “universal health care” experiments in recent decades. All have failed, largely due to their unwillingness to cut the amount of money going to insurance companies. What happens is the new “subsidized” health insurance plans created are still too expensive for the uninsured, so they don’t participate and the number of uninsured does not decrease substantially. But many people presently receiving health insurance through their employer end up being pushed in to the new “public” program, so the costs for taxpayers go up much higher than anticipated even though the number of uninsured remains high. The program collapses due to its failure to control costs.

Democrats often argue “let’s get everyone in the system first, so let’s not threaten the insurance and drug companies so they’ll go along. Once everyone is in, it will be so popular – just like Medicare and Social Security – that we can then confront costs.” America doesn’t work that way. When the costs are so high and the number of uninsured don’t come down like promised, the political support for universal health care collapses.

The “public option” model being fought over by the Democrats as the “cutting edge” is just the latest version of the failed state universal health care models. The public option model – as weak and flawed as it is – is getting weaker during every step of the Congressional negotiations. Congressional leaders are bending over backwards to make sure that the public option doesn’t even “compete” with private health insurance, let alone eliminate it. They appease the insurance companies and Congressional Republicans by promising that the public option will continue all the bad practices of private health insurance so that it doesn’t have an “unfair advantage.” Some models are little more than an “exchange” to purchase private health insurance. Even if the public option gets implemented, there is the real risk that it become a “dumping ground” for those with high health care costs (i.e., the chronically ill), defeating the whole concept of “social insurance.”

Democratic leaders, in arguing to preserve insurance companies, claim that Americans want the option to keep what they already have. This is misleading. Americans are not arguing to preserve the roadblocks and costs of private for-profit health insurance. They do want to avoid paying a lot more for health care if they already have it from work and they don’t want to have less access to health care. Most want the option to be able to continue to see their present doctor or medical provider. But they certainly don’t want HMOs to control their health care decisions – or pay higher costs to keep HMOs alive.

Others argue that we have to preserve the jobs in the health insurance industry, especially during this recession. But killing people and wasting money to preserve what are largely data entry jobs isn’t the solution. Many of these data entry jobs can be transferred into an expanded health care system. It would be far cheaper and more socially productive to provide job training and job guarantees to the existing workers. Providing a true universal health care system will also create many jobs as more individuals receive health services.

All of the main Democrats’ proposals will still leave tens of millions without health care coverage. Without a true universal health care system that covers everyone, there is less incentive to make the public investments needed to focus on keeping everyone healthy (e.g., preventive care) rather than trying to deal with the problem once someone become sick. A “sick care” system such as America’s is much more expensive.

Democratic leaders from President Obama to Senators Kennedy and Schumer readily admit that a single payer system – an expanded Medicare for All – makes the most sense for America if we were willing to take on the insurance companies. Democratic leaders say single payer has no “political” support – despite having far more sponsors in Congress than any other proposal and having strong support among doctors, nurses, academics, community groups and voters.

America will not get universal health care until its political leaders forget about the Band-Aids and campaign contributions and do the needed surgery to remove the cancer of for profit private health insurance. Single payer legislation such as HR 676 and S 703 is the clear solution.


  1. Jan Jasmin on July 8, 2009 at 2:43 am

    I was curious as to what the Democrats mentioned therein would say in response to this article. I always like to see a good debate especially about a hot and important topic like this because I don’t want to just take someone’s word for something. I want the Democrats mentioned in this piece to respond because I in turn will learn something from the other side that I might not have otherwise. So I hope that a response will be forthcoming soon.

    Thank you

  2. Stuart on July 30, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Congress needs to put the American people FIRST! The fact that there willing to back up the insurance companies to satisfy there own political agenda is absolutely disgusting and shameful. Insurance companies have been raping the American people for years now and causing people to not only lose there lives from denials but financially force people into bankruptcy. This is a very serious matter in this country and Ive had enough of this crap. I”m ashamed of the US congress for putting the interest of profit and greed ahead of the American people and there health. We need to come together on this issue America and take back our health care. Obama needs to veto anything that doesn’t put a public option on the table, or single payer of course.