Healthcare Whac-A-Mole

When Republicans try to set themselves up as the protectors of Medicare, they should be laughed out of the forum. But apparently that is too much to expect from our nation’s premier news organizations.

A recent example is the Washington Post, whose editors chose to give Michael Steele, the zany Republican national chairman, space for an op-ed column Aug. 24. In it he proposed a “Seniors’ Health Care Bill of Rights,” which would “ensure that our greatest generation will receive access to quality health care.” Among the tenets:

“First, we need to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of ‘health-insurance reform.’...”

“Second, we need to prohibit government from getting between seniors and their doctors. ...”

“Third, we need to outlaw any effort to ration health care based on age. ...”

“Fourth, we need to prevent government from dictating the terms of end-of-life care. ...”

“Finally, we need to protect our veterans by preserving Tricare and other benefit programs for military families. ...”

AARP, which represents 40 million seniors, welcomed Steele’s newfound support for Medicare, but noted that “nothing in the bills that have been proposed would bring about the scenarios the RNC is concerned about.”

Indeed, if Republicans were serious about enacting health reforms, Sen. Charles Grassley (D-Iowa) probably could get unanimous consent to attach that “Seniors’ Health Care Bill of Rights” to the health bill when it gets to the Senate floor.

Instead, it’s just another example of a fraudulent disinformation campaign that seeks to sidetrack serious reforms that would make affordable health coverage available for small businesses, workers and their families. One of Steele’s complaints is that “President Obama’s plan for a government-run health-care system is the wrong prescription.” But as Time’s Joe Klein notes, “What makes Steele’s column especially hilarious is that ... it never mentions that Medicare is ‘a government-run health-care system.’”

Steele’s Republican Party opposed the creation of Medicare in the 1960s and has tried to undercut it ever since. The GOP-dominated Congress shut down the government in 1995 in an unsuccessful attempt to force Bill Clinton to accept cuts to Medicare. In 2006 Steele said he was open to Medicare cuts during his unsuccessful Senate campaign. As recently as 2008 the Republican presidential ticket ran on a platform of cutting Medicare. And a day after his op-ed appeared in the Post, Steele appeared on Fox “News” to clarify, “this single-payer program known as Medicare is a very good example of what we should not have happen with all of our health care.” Instead, we should “trust the private markets to do it the right way,” he said.

Republicans cannot credibly set themselves up as the protector of health benefits for seniors, but they can create doubts by spreading unfounded rumors that the Democrats’ health plans would wreak havoc, such as rationing health care and setting up “death panels” to deny medical care to seniors.

As things stand now, some bill is likely to pass, since insurance companies are poised to reap a financial windfall if millions of the uninsured are required to buy health insurance. So the main questions to be resolved by Congress include: how much power the government will have to regulate insurers, whether the government will set up a “public option” as a competitor to private insurance, and how much the government will subsidize insurance premiums. But even if the government gets to be a competitor and a regulator, the Los Angeles Times reported Aug. 24, insurers would come out ahead. “They are going to have this very stable pool, they’re going to have people getting subsidies to help them buy coverage and ... they will be paid the full costs of the benefits that they provide — plus their administrative costs,” Linda Blumberg, a health policy analyst at the Urban Institute, told the Times.

In the first half of 2009, the health service and HMO sector alone spent nearly $35 million lobbying Congress, the White House and federal health offices, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As Republicans have appealed to conservative Democratic allies in their fight against the public option, stock prices of health insurance corporations have been rising.

If those conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats succeed in forcing healthcare reforms to be scaled back to a list of vague promises that private health insurance companies will be more responsible, in return for the requirement that everybody buy insurance, and then the effective date of the insurance relief is pushed back to 2013, as some propose, working people will wonder why they bothered to vote for those Blue Dogs — and Obama. Those conservative Dems will be hit hard in the next election and they will richly deserve getting thrown out of office.

The only problem with that scenario is that, absent a strong populist alternative, the Republicans who will replace the Blue Dogs will almost certainly be worse for working people.

Dems need to get the health reform bills moving in the House and Senate pronto and dedicate the results to the memory of Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose death was reported as we went to press. If necessary, they should strip the bill into two parts in the Senate, with the public option and financing going through budget reconciliation and less controversial parts going the regular route.

Get in touch with your US rep and senators at their district office or via the Capitol switchboard (202-224-3121) and urge them to support the public option. Blue Dogs especially need to hear from you to counteract Fox-viewing “teabaggers.”

Wall Street Keeps Its Guy

It was not a big surprise when President Obama announced Aug. 25 that he will nominate Ben Bernanke for a second term as Fed chairman. When you recognize that the Fed chairman’s first priority is to protect the interests of Wall Street investment banks that control the Federal Reserve, he has done a creditable job. He got the first term from George W. Bush because he was willing to go along with the deregulation of Wall Street. When the resulting speculation in mortgage-backed securities nearly led to a worldwide economic collapse, Bernanke stopped the panic by providing more than $2 trillion in loans to back up the troubled assets of megabanks. His actions, together with the bailouts engineered by the Bush and Obama administrations, probably stopped the economy from slipping into Great Depression II, though Bernanke has drawn fire for his refusal to disclose where the Fed money went. So Bernanke gets another four years to figure out how to clean up the Fed’s balance sheet and tighten up the money supply without plunging the country into another economic contraction.

But Bernanke shouldn’t get off that easily. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stated, “As a result of the greed, irresponsibility and illegal behavior of Wall Street, our country has experienced the worst economic decline since the Great Depression. Mr. Bernanke was head of the Fed and the nation’s chief economist as this crisis, driven by reckless speculation, developed. Tragically, like the rest of the Bush administration, he was asleep at the wheel during this period and did nothing to move our financial system onto safer grounds. As the middle class of this country continues to shrink, we need a chairman of the Federal Reserve who is more concerned about expanding the productive economy — increasing decent-paying jobs for all Americans — than continuing to fan the flames of Wall Street greed and outrageous compensation packages.”

Reappointing Bernanke was the easy course for Obama, and Wall Street applauded. But Main Street still needs protection from Wall Street’s predations. Congress and the Obama administration must renounce Reaganomics and re-regulate the financial securities industry. At some point Obama and the Dems will need to stand up to Wall Street. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2009

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