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Washington protests against health insurance industry’s excesses

Dr Lesley Russell reports from the frontline of health reform efforts in Washington:

“This week President Obama is out campaigning, making what White House officials are calling the ‘closing arguments’ on why the Congress must urgently move to enact health care reform.  His primary focus is on the unstoppable greed of the health insurance companies that, if not checked, will see premiums double and 57 million Americans without cover within the next decade.  His insistence is that health care reform needs a comprehensive overhaul rather than the incremental approach Republicans are demanding.

In his weekly media address last weekend, the President set a new deadline for action.  He’s asked leaders in both of Houses of Congress to finish their work and schedule a vote in the next few weeks.  So the scramble is on to get the numbers: reconciliation means that only a simple majority is needed in the Senate, but House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, will need all her formidable skills to marshal the 216 votes needed in the House.  The hope is that anyone tempted to drop their previous support for the bill recognises that this will be seen as a flip-flop stance that will draw no votes in the upcoming mid-term elections.

Health care reform will almost certainly be enacted without a single Republican vote.

The conservatives are in full rallying cry on why health care reform must be stopped.  Their mantra is that it will increase taxes, cut Medicare, cost jobs and – the worst crime – represents a government takeover of health care.  Their confected rage at the use of the reconciliation process ignores the fact that this is precisely how President George W Bush got his tax cuts passed – measures which have added $2 trillion to the federal debt since their enactment.

One thing is working to drive Democrats and the public to support health care reform, and that is the unbelievable willingness of the health insurance industry, which once posed as Obama’s allies in health care reform, to maximize their corporate profits, even as they are set to benefit from health care reforms that will see some 20 million more people purchasing private health insurance.

Steep increases – some as high as 60 percent – in individual health insurance premiums are sparking reactions across the country.  These come even as insurance companies report record profits, give their CEOs bonuses ranging from $3 million to $24 million, and spend, on average, more that 18 percent of their revenues on marketing, administration and profits.  Insurers in the individual market sometimes maintain medical loss ratios of only 60 percent.  There is also growing evidence that insurers are purging sicker clients from their business.

This week the America’s Health Insurance Plans, the national association for health insurers, is meeting at a luxury hotel in Washington DC, planning how to kill the oversight regulation on their practices in the health care reform bills and how to spend more than $1 million to run TV advertisements to push back on the attacks from Obama and the Democrats.

That led to a major march in downtown Washington (see picture below), as unions, political action groups and citizens joined together to demand health care reform now.  Your intrepid correspondent, keen to step out in support of health care reform, was part of the noisy and impressive gathering.

Getting health care reform finally done (before Obama heads to Indonesia and Australia) will not be easy, but it is certainly possible.  And I’ve recently stumbled across two additional reasons for making sure it’s done.

1. Sarah Palin, who last year insisted that Canada needs to reform its health care system to “let the private sector take over”, has admitted that when she and her husband had no health cover (a situation that was addressed when they both landed “good union jobs”) they used to “hustle over the border for health care in Canada”.  At least she had the decency to add “And I think now, isn’t that ironic?”

2. Conservative windbag Rush Limbaugh says “I’ll leave the US if health reform passes.  I’ll just tell you this, if this passes and it’s five years from now and all that stuff gets implemented – I am leaving the country. I’ll go to Costa Rica.”  I guess he’s attracted by the strong universal health insurance system that he doesn’t want Americans to have, the fine system of public hospitals, and the fact that most medicines, including the ones he used to be addicted to, don’t require a prescription.

• Dr Lesley Russell is the Menzies Foundation Fellow at the Menzies  Center for Health Policy, University of Sydney/ Australian National  University and a Research Associate at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.  She is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC.

Lesley Russell (left), reporting from the US campaign for health reform
Lesley Russell (left), reporting from the US campaign for health reform

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