Congre$$, Heal Thyself
As the Obama administration pushes for a vote on health care reform before Congress recesses in August, has health industry money too thoroughly polluted the process for anything good to come of it?
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairs the Senate Finance Committee, key to any health care reform. Baucus has held several high-profile Senate committee hearings on health care, with no single-payer advocates. They were present, though, until Baucus had them arrested-for standing up one by one in the audience, protesting the exclusion of a single-payer representative on the panel. Baucus is only parroting President Barack Obama's pledge that "single-payer is off the table." Yet single-payer health care has significant support among the U.S. public, and increasingly among health care providers. With single-payer, the government pays the bills, but people still choose what doctors to see. Private health insurance companies and HMOs-the profiteers-go out of business.
Mike Dennison, a reporter for The Montana Standard, found that Baucus has received more campaign money from health and insurance industry interests than any other member of Congress. Dennison told me, "We're talking about the health insurance industry and ... HMOs, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies-that's probably where the bulk of his money has come from ... out of about almost $15 million he's raised in the last six years, both for his campaign and his leadership PAC, 23 percent of that came from insurance and health interests ... which we believe is probably more than any other member has received."
At a public forum in New Mexico, Linda Allison asked Obama about Baucus' finances: "[S]o many people go bankrupt using their credit cards to pay for health care. Why have they taken single-payer off the plate? And why is Baucus on the Finance Committee discussing health care when he has received so much money from the pharmaceutical companies? Isn't it a conflict of interest?"
Obama dodged the issue of Baucus, but did admit: "If I were starting a system from scratch, then I think that the idea of moving towards a single-payer system could very well make sense. That's the kind of system that you have in most industrialized countries around the world."
Allison's concern about bankruptcy is timely. According to a recent Harvard Medical School study, "62.1 percent of all bankruptcies in 2007 were medical." Many of these people are not from the 50 million or so uninsured Americans, but from among the estimated 25 million who are underinsured. That a person can have health insurance and still be driven to bankruptcy over hospital bills and pharmaceutical costs is a national disgrace.
Just days before Obama addressed the American Medical Association this week, the AMA announced that it would oppose a public health option.
In response, at least one doctor canceled his membership. In his resignation letter, Dr. Chris McCoy of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., wrote that the AMA "couldn't get through the second paragraph before bringing up the issue of physician reimbursement ... the AMA represents a physician-centered and self-interested perspective rather than honoring the altruistic nature of my profession. ... I advocate first for what is best for my patients and believe that as a physician, as long as I continue to maintain the trust and integrity of the profession, I will earn the respect of my community. The appropriate financial compensation for my endeavors will follow in kind."
Recent congressional financial disclosures show that many key members have major investments in the health care industry. The Washington Post reported this week that almost 30 members of Congress who hold key committee memberships that will impact the health care debate also have significant investments in health care companies. The bipartisan group of investors includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.; the family of Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.; Sen.Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.; Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho-in all, amounting to between $11 million and $27 million (the number is imprecise, since the disclosure forms allow some ambiguity).
According to the Associated Press, Jackie Clegg Dodd, wife of Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., serves on the boards of four health-related companies and earned more than $200,000 last year. Sen. Dodd is sitting in as chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, in place of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
Congress will soon break for its "summer recess," with members going back to their home districts to raise money, of course, and, perhaps, to visit their hometown health care provider-paid for by their publicly funded congressional health care plan.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 750 stations in North America. She is the co-author of "Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times," recently released in paperback.