Bitter medicine - Page 4

Health care reform groups fear the cure may be worse than the disease
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Illustration by Danny Hellman

"The difference in California is the voters will have the final say. And I'm excited about that. The voters of California will be able to say to the insurance companies, 'We've had enough, now go away,'" Leno told us. He said he expects a ballot campaign in 2012.

Of course, it won't be that simple. Leno knows that the insurance industry will spend untold millions of dollars to defend itself and a "status quo that is only working for them, not for anyone else. This is an enormously powerful industry and they control the debates."

"Our effort here in California is an educational one. We have from now until the election in 2012 to make the arguments," Leno said.

 

THE COST OF INSURANCE

Testifying at a hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee in June, Geri Jenkins, a registered nurse and the co-president of the California Nurses Association, related the story of Nataline Sarkisyan. The 17-year-old girl needed a life-saving liver transplant, Jenkins explained to Congress members. "But CIGNA would not approve it," she told them, "until I, and hundreds of others, protested. During one of the protests, I was with Hilda, Nataline's mother, when she got the call of approval."

Hilda's relief didn't last long. By the time the hurdle had been cleared, Jenkins testified, "it was too late. Nataline died an hour later."

Nataline's story sparked national outrage, and it has since become a flagship tale highlighting all that is wrong with this country's health care system. But as the debate about health care reform continues inside House and Senate committee chambers, discussion about "universal health care" — a phrase with a simple ring to it — has grown murkier.

"We have a universal health care system now," Flanagan said, referring to how all Americans with serious medical conditions have a right to treatment — even if that treatment comes with great expense in an overcrowded public hospital emergency room. "It's just the most inefficient system imaginable."

With the August congressional recess coming up fast and Obama leaning on Capitol Hill to shift into high gear on an issue that was a hallmark of his campaign, the pressure is on to vote on the historic health care reform legislation within weeks.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee passed a health care reform bill July 16 that is similar to the House bill, with the vote split along party lines. Now, national attention has turned to the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Baucus, which continued its efforts last week to achieve a bipartisan bill.

Many of progressive reform advocates simply don't trust the players in Washington, D.C., to get this right, particularly Baucus. "He's the voice of the insurance companies in the Senate," Flanagan said.

A recent article in the Washington Post estimated that the insurance industry is spending an estimated $1.4 million per day to influence the outcome of the health care legislation, and pointed out that many of the lobbyists were Washington insiders who had previously worked for key legislators, such as Baucus.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit research group that tracks money in U.S. politics and operates the Web site opensecrets.org, launched an intensive study of health care sector lobbyist spending, including cataloguing industry contributions to individual candidates from 1989 to the present. Baucus received more industry campaign contributions in that time than any other Democrat, the CRP study reveals, with a total of $3.8 million. Henry Waxman (D-<\d>Los Angeles), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, received a total of $1.4 million in that same time, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) received $1.2 million.

Starting in the 2008 election cycle, the health sector gave more to Democrats than to Republicans, according to the CRP's analysis.

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